Food waste is the loss of edible food throughout the food system, from production through processing, distribution, and retailing and from restaurants, food services, and homes. Despite production of more than enough food to feed the global population, food waste is a major contributor to food insecurity and hunger worldwide. For example, about 40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted each year, while one of every six to eight Americans experiences food insecurity.
Estimates of food waste vary, but they are all immense. The United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of the global food supply is wasted or lost, including about half of all fruits and vegetables, at a cost of almost $3 trillion annually. Meanwhile, nearly one billion people go hungry. An estimated 9.7 billion pounds (4.4 billion kg) of edible household food was discarded in the United Kingdom in 2015. India—one of the world's largest food producers—wastes $14 billion worth of food annually, while 194 million Indians go hungry each day.
About 160 billion pounds (73 billion kg) of US food is wasted every year—1,400 calories per person per day—including an estimated 50% of all produce. An average American family of four discards 1,160 pounds (526 kg) of food annually, about 25% of its purchases, at a cost of $1,365–$2,275. Per capita food waste has increased about 50% since 1974. With 95% of discarded food ending up in landfills or incinerators, food waste accounts for 21% of municipal solid waste and is the single largest contributor to US land-fills. It has been estimated that a 15% reduction in food waste could feed 25 million Americans each year.
Food is lost or wasted at every step in the food chain, from field and fishing boat to the dinner plate. A distinction is often made between food loss and food waste. Food loss is food that is spilled or spoiled before final processing or retailing due to mold, pests, or problems with harvesting, storage, refrigeration or other infrastructure, packaging, transport, pricing mechanisms, or institutional or legal matters. Edible food that is discarded or left to spoil by farmers, processors, retailers, or consumers—either intentionally or due to improper storage, purchasing, cooking, appearance, or misinterpreted labeling dates—is considered food waste. Although some food loss from factors such as weather or pests is inevitable, other problems leading to food loss are often avoidable; avoidable loss may be considered food waste, along with the discarding of edible, nutritious food.
Food waste will become even more significant as the global population increases, and arable land is lost due to nutrient depletion, soil erosion, and climate change. Whether accidental or intentional, food waste represents a waste of land, water, energy, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides/herbicides, human labor, and other inputs and contributes to deforestation for expanding agriculture. Water used to grow wasted food could satisfy the domestic water needs of nine billion people. By discarding six common foods—lettuce, apples, tomatoes, eggs, almonds, and beef—the average American wastes 26,500 gal. (100,313 L) of water annually. One year of farm food loss represents about 300 million barrels of oil and, with the energy input to the supply chain and food preparation, household food waste accounts for eight times that much. Only 3% of US food waste is composted. Decomposing food waste in landfills produces methane—a major greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Over the entire food supply chain, food waste is estimated to account for 7% of global carbon emissions.
Although produce is a major source of food waste, it is far from the only source. Almost half of edible seafood in the United States goes to waste. As overfishing, or over-fishing if divided threatens global supplies, 1.3 billion pounds (0.6 billion kg) of edible seafood are tossed annually by US consumers, 570 million pounds (259 million kg) are discarded as bycatch, and 330 million pounds (150 million kg) are lost during distribution. The FAO estimates that 8% of the global catch is wasted each year, including 40%–60% of fish caught by European trawlers in the North Sea that are discarded as bycatch. Tropical shrimp trawling accounts for more than 27% of total marine discards.
A growing global population and increasing demand for food production and processing is generating even more food waste. Making excess food available to food insecure households as well as large-scale composting or anaerobic digestion (AD) for biogas generation present huge logistical challenges. The Indian government's attempts to sell excess grain at lower prices to the poor has encountered problems with quality and corruption, as well as lack of storage and processing facilities. Reducing supermarket food waste is also challenging. For example, in 2018, a new inventory-management system, “order-to-shelf,” designed in part to reduce waste, led to major product shortages at US Whole Foods stores.
Food waste occurs at every step in the worldwide food supply.
American consumers expect their produce to be aesthetically pleasing, without bruises, dings, browning, discoloration, oxidation, wilting, or other minor blemishes; they mistakenly associate perfect-looking foods with health, safety, and the best technologies. The widespread practice of posting food photos on the internet further encourages these perceptions. Assuming that shoppers will buy only visually perfect fruits and vegetables, produce rots in the field, is fed to livestock, and goes directly to landfills. Government subsidies that make food cheaper in the United States than in most other countries encourage fastidious consumer behaviors.
An estimated 40%–50% of US food waste and 51%–63% of seafood waste occur in the home. Fresh fruits and vegetables account for 28% of household food waste, dairy for 17%, meat for 12%, and seafood for 33%. Two-thirds of this waste is due to overpurchasing, often caused by poor meal planning or sales or promotions, as well as from partially used ingredients, spoilage from improper storage, or being forgotten in the refrigerator. The other one-third of waste is due to cooking or serving too much, increased portion sizes, and discarding of leftovers. Furthermore, an estimated 90% of Americans mistakenly discard food because of labeling dates with “sell by,” “best if used by,” or “expires by.” These dates are poorly defined, unregulated, and inconsistent. They are manufacturers' suggestions for retail stocking that have little relevance for consumers and do not indicate when a food is spoiled or unsafe. A U.K. study suggested that standardizing and clarifying such labels could reduce household food waste by 20%.
Many different strategies can be used to reduce household food waste:
Parents and schools can help children reduce food waste by:
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a national goal of 50% reduction in food waste by 2030 to improve food security and preserve natural resources. Initiatives included consumer education campaigns and the Food Waste Challenge for sharing best practices for reducing, recovering, and recycling. A “Food: Too Good To Waste” pilot campaign proved effective for education and waste reduction in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest. The EPA's Food Recovery Hierarchy, from most preferred to last resort, is as follows:
Internationally as of 2018:
The nonprofit Food Recovery Network, founded by college students, began donating university cafeteria food to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and afterschool programs. Within four years, 150 colleges and universities were participating. The students went on to establish a California company that sells cosmetically imperfect produce at reduced prices. Other companies have started similar programs, such as buying misshapen produce and scraps for resale to restaurants.
Other methods for reducing food waste include:
See also Sustainable diets .
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Margaret Alic, PhD