How Does Food Waste Affect Climate Change in 2022?

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Photo by Lenka Dzurendova on Unsplash

About a third of all food we produce globally goes to waste and in the US, this statistic is between 30 and 40 percent. This is an alarming reality, considering over five million households in the US were considered to have very low food security in 2020.

Food waste happens at every stage along the food supply chain. Much goes to landfill before it even reaches our supermarket shelves, and still more is wasted at household level, where food is bought by consumers, then thrown away before being eaten. But there is an aspect of food waste we don’t see, one that is often ignored. This is the incredibly inefficient production of animal products, in which far more food is fed to farmed animals than is yielded by them. In fact, so many crops are wasted by feeding them to animals that 83 percent of our farmland is needed to do so, but the meat, milk, and eggs produced make up just 18 percent of our calories. Not only does this require disproportionate amounts of land, energy, and water, it destroys the planet in the process.

In any food system, a small amount of waste is inevitable, but the current state of affairs is unsustainable, unethical, and wholly avoidable.

How Does Food Waste Affect Climate Change?

Reducing waste is a key factor in fighting climate breakdown. The growing, processing, and transportation of food all produces climate-harming emissions, so when we waste this food, we are doubling down on its climate impact, as more food must then be produced in its place.

Again, the major factor in this is animal agriculture and the wasteful and unethical process of exploiting and killing animals for their flesh, milk, and eggs. Animal agriculture dominates one third of the world’s habitable surface and yet still more land is needed, so it is taken from nature. Forests are felled and other important habitats destroyed which is catastrophic for the environment in so many ways. This whole system is wildly inefficient and promotes waste at every level. However, when we eat plant foods, a fraction of the land is needed, and a fraction of the waste occurs.

Food Waste in Landfills

The heartbreaking reality is that one in four of the individual, sentient beings raised and forced to suffer in the farming industry, end up in landfill.

This could be because they die prematurely from disease or infection caused by the horrific conditions they live in.

Or their flesh may be condemned before it reaches consumers, or it could reach supermarket shelves only to be thrown away once it has perished. If this isn’t shocking enough, more food is grown to feed to animals who end up in landfill, than is grown to feed all humans on earth. This is waste on an unimaginable scale.

While animal products are the most wasteful by far, plant products are wasted, too. Only five percent of fruit and vegetable waste is composted in the US, meaning the rest ends up in landfill, breaking down and adding to the immense amounts of climate-harming methane produced by the animal farming industry.

Food Waste and Greenhouse Gasses

Producing, transporting, and letting food rot, all contribute 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This means that if food waste was a country, it would have the third largest carbon footprint on the planet, after China and the US. Climate-harming methane is the main gas emitted from landfills, and food waste is a huge component of this. According to a report from the UK-based organization WRAP, if no food entered UK landfills, the emissions savings would have the same effect as removing 20 percent of UK cars from the road.

Food waste is also responsible for GHG emissions through energy losses. When food is thrown away, the energy required to produce, transport, and prepare it is also wasted. Producing this wasted energy releases carbon into the atmosphere unnecessarily.

What Percent of Climate Change is Caused By Food Waste?

It is estimated that six percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to food waste, but this only represents food wasted in supply chains and by consumers. The vast amounts of waste caused by feeding crops to billions of farmed animals instead of to people is not factored in.

Where Is Food Waste Coming From?

Food is wasted at every step along our supply chains: on farms and fishing boats, during processing and packaging, in restaurants, grocery stores, and in our homes.

Household food waste accounts for all the food purchased by consumers, which is then thrown away because it has perished or goes uneaten. The average US household wastes 31 percent of its food every year. We can all do our bit to reduce this waste by buying only what we need, freezing perishable products, and being creative with our leftovers. Industrial food waste accounts for the food wasted during farming, production, processing, and transportation. For example, stringent grocery store standards mean huge amounts of fruit and vegetables that are ‘imperfect’ in their looks go straight to landfill before even reaching the stores.

The truly shocking reality however is that a horrifying amount of waste is inherent in the production of meat and dairy and it is waste that is never highlighted in the mainstream conversation. Animal agriculture dominates 83 percent of the planet’s agricultural land, yet provides only 18 percent of the human population’s calorie intake. This is largely because the majority of crops grown on our planet are fed to farmed animals who eat five times more food than the world’s population put together. As a result, the volume of food fed to animals is always greater than the food humans get from eating animals. This is unjust and wasteful.

Research shows that the amount of land required to produce 100 grams of plant protein, would only produce four grams of beef protein. This means that if America switched to a plant-based farming system, we could produce enough food to feed 350 million more people, which would easily exceed the amount of food currently lost in our supply chains.

In other words, with the resources we have, we could easily feed everyone on this planet a nutritionally balanced diet, and at the same time, fight climate breakdown, drastically reduce food waste, and save the lives of billions of animals a year. We just choose not to, in the name of profits for animal agriculture and an unsustainable appetite for meat products.

Which Foods Have the Biggest Footprint?

Fruits and vegetables are the most commonly wasted foods in the US by volume, and the direct emissions produced from their breakdown in landfill is a big issue. This doesn’t mean they have the biggest impact however.

Animal products have a much larger footprint from their production, vastly greater than most plant-based products, so producing them and wasting them is far more harmful to the planet overall. A better approach would be to avoid animal products altogether and remove the unsustainable, unhealthy, and unethical impacts they have on humans, animals, and the planet.

The following graph shows food emissions by product:

This shows us just how bad for the planet meat, milk and eggs from animals are. Even if you buy animal products and do not waste them yourself, you have already contributed to more emissions and waste than if you’d bought and wasted any plant-based product.

How Cutting Your Food Waste Can Help the Climate

US households waste around 76 billion pounds of food every year, most of which ends up in landfill, producing climate-harming methane. Cutting our household food waste can reduce these emissions and help fight climate breakdown.

Cutting our consumption of animal products to zero would have a hugely positive impact for the climate and reduce waste across the whole food system.

How to Fight Climate Breakdown by Preventing Food Waste

There are many ways we can make individual efforts to reduce food waste and fight climate breakdown.

Go Vegan

Research shows that going vegan is the most effective way to reduce our individual impact on the planet. Doing so also reduces the food waste caused by animal agriculture and stops the needless loss of animal life, which is not only bad for the planet but also unethical.

Be Creative With Leftovers

Leftovers can sometimes seem unappealing, but getting creative with them can create a fresh and exciting dish for you to enjoy. Check out these 10 tips for creatively using leftovers.

Blend, Bake, Or Boil

Most of us don’t realize how easily we can preserve fruits and vegetables just by changing their state! For example, try boiling fruit that is nearing its end date and making a healthy, delicious dessert topping or jelly. Why not try making your own vegetable stock with any leftover vegetables you can’t eat in time?

We’ve all paid for an expensive smoothie, but when we have a whole fridge full of fruit at home, why not make use of the blender more often?

There are countless ways we can reduce food waste by getting a little creative with our methods.

Buy Only What You Need

Busy lives and big families can make this challenging, but if we all bought and used only what we needed, it would have such a meaningful impact on the planet. Proper meal planning and grocery lists can help us do this.

Use Your Freezer

Your freezer is your friend when it comes to waste as so many perishable foods can be frozen. Freezing fresh fruit and vegetables actually locks in nutrients that will remain present for up to a year in the freezer, so there really is nothing to lose by freezing food that would otherwise go to waste. Our favorite is freezing bananas, especially when they are over-ripe, and when you fancy a healthy treat, blending them up with a little of your favorite plant milk to make tasty banana ‘nice cream.’

Make Use of Food Waste Apps

Companies have realized the value of saving food from the trash, and apps are popping up that allow you to buy food that would otherwise be wasted, at a discount price! Check out these five amazing apps.

Conclusion

Current levels of food waste are not just an injustice to those who go hungry, they are also a major contributor to climate breakdown. There are issues all along the food system supply chain and the solutions to some of these are complex, but one certainty is that producing meat, milk and eggs from animals is highly inefficient and wasteful, and to battle climate breakdown effectively, we must make a dietary change.

A food system based on plant-based foods, would be much more land-efficient and be capable of producing more food, with fewer resources, easily offsetting our current levels of food waste. It’s time we moved on from wastefully exploiting animals for their flesh, milk, and eggs, and embraced a waste-free future, where we work to protect our planet’s climate instead of destroying it.

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