Food is essential to our survival, but with the rise of globalisation and the ease of access to more exotic and indulgent foods, the concept of ‘eating to live’ has become a thing of a past. With this abundance of good foods to eat, and the luxury of choice, society has turned a blind eye to the environmental footprint of the way we eat. Our attitudes to food have also given rise to a global epidemic of food waste.
Before reading on, consider these questions:
How many times have you bought lunch on the go, only discard your forgotten leftovers the next day?
How many times have you ordered at a restaurant and left unsatisfactory food on your plate?
How often have your eyes been bigger than your stomach at a buffet, meaning you waste you plate of food at the end?
How often have you attended a party and ‘not taken the last piece’, to be polite, only later realising nobody ate it after all?
Small things add up, and although as individual occurrences the above may seem insignificant, when the impact of all those little leftovers is combined the figures suddenly start to seem more considerable.
The Director-General of The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN stressed the importance of looking at the overall annual figures of waste to understand the magnitude of the problem. Half of the food that is wasted, about 300 million tons per year, is still edible at the time it is discarded. This is more than the total amount of food produced by Sub-Saharan Africa, and is enough feed the 870 million people starving worldwide.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stresses the importance of focussing on food waste not only in terms of economic damages, but also the environmental and ethical aspects. Besides the costs of input such as land, water, fertiliser and labour, food waste is also one of the key contributors of greenhouse gases.
The following are the key ways in which food waste impacts the environment:
– Impacts on Biodiversity
The FAO report states that the production and waste of excessive food leads to monoculture in manufacturing, and expansion of agricultural land into forests and other untouched, biodiverse environments. This causes loss of biodiversity in mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, and vegetation. That the demand for food has caused these losses in the natural world is made more bitter by the fact that up to one third of all food is wasted.
In his TED Talk, ‘The Global Food Waste Scandal’, environmental campaigner Tristram Stuart highlighted that the huge waste of food we are facing is unprecedented. In many ways, the advances in human agriculture are a success story. But when supply and demand begins to outweigh our needs, we need to re-asses our goals. Agriculture is quickly marching beyond the limit that the planet can tolerate – deforestation, water consumption, and use of harmful substances to increase agricultural yield have surpassed sustainable levels. To then waste this food is a travesty that needs addressing.
– Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Wasting food not only causes greenhouse gas emissions in the decomposition processes of the food, but the production methods and cultivation processes of our food has a significan carbon footprint.
The emissions of greenhouse gases associated with agricultural processes is between 25% to 40% of global emissions.
The global carbon footprint of food waste, including the argriculturalisation of land, was estimated at 3.3 billion tons of Co2 in 2007. If food were ranked as a country, it would be the third highest contributor of carbon emissions in the world, outdone only by the US and China, according to 2012 statistics. This is equal to double the US greenhouse gas emissions for cars (est. 1.5 billion tons of Co2 in 2010).
– Wasting water
Wasting food also means wasting the water used to produce it.
Globally, the amount of water taken from surface water or taken from groundwater used in the agricultural production of food that is never eaten of excess product is about 250 Kilometres Squared, equivalent to the annual discharge of the Volga river, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
When we waste food, we are wasting colossal amounts of water. This
particularly applies to animal products and meat.
These figures are scandalous when compared to the statistic that, globally, 780 million people do not have access to safe water.
– Wasting Land:
Production of wasted food accounted for nearly 1.4 billion hectares of land, which amounts to nearly 30% of the world's agricultural land.