The world is teetering on the edge of a food crisis due to the growing population, soaring food prices, and water scarcity, yet a shocking one third of the food produced around the world goes to waste. A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that 1.3 billion tons of food are lost each year, which means that the resources used to produce that food are also lost. “As much as half of the water used to grow food globally may be lost or wasted,” said Dr. Charlotte de Fraiture, a researcher at the International Water Management Institute. Curbing this waste is one solution to the global water crisis since the water used to produce food that is wasted could otherwise be used for drinking water or industry, to irrigate different crops or to replenish aquifers.
A recent report about the United Kingdom’s food waste stated that U.K. households discard 8.3 million metric tons (2205 lbs.) of food and drink each year, most of which could be eaten. This is equivalent to wasting 64 gallons of water per person each day, 1½ times the amount an average U.K. household uses daily.
In the U.S., almost half the food supply worth over $48.3 billion is lost each year, which amounts to wasting 10.5 trillion gallons of water—enough to meet the water needs of 500 million people. The average American family of four discards 112 lbs. of food each month.
Curtailing food waste would reduce the water needed for agriculture, which is responsible for the consumption of 70% of U.S. freshwater resources.
In fact, according to Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, the irrigation water used globally to grow all the wasted food would be enough to meet the domestic needs of the projected 2050 global population of 9 billion people.
Moreover, wasted food, most of which is sent to landfills, contributes to global warming as each metric ton of food generates 4.5 times that amount of C02. Decomposing food in landfills also produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than C02. The growing of food that never gets eaten is actually responsible for 10% of the greenhouse gases emitted by wealthy countries like the U.K. and the U.S.
Food is wasted all along the food supply chain, from the farm to the food on our tables. In developing countries, 40% of waste occurs at the post-harvest and processing phases, while in rich countries, 40% of waste occurs at the retail and consumer stages, but industrialized countries waste substantially more food per capita than developing countries.
In developing countries, food waste occurs in the field where crops are lost to pests and disease, and in transport and storage because farmers do not have the equipment and technology necessary to get the food to market before it spoils. In both poor and rich countries, 10% to 15% of food is damaged or rots in transit.
And at the retail stage, U.S. supermarkets, which routinely overstock the shelves to produce that look of abundance, throw away 30 million pounds of food daily before its “sell by” date. Commercial kitchens in schools, hospitals, and restaurants discard 4% to 10% of what they buy, and diners on average leave 17% of food on their plate. Only 2% of U.S. food waste gets composted—the rest is sent to landfills, running up $1 billion yearly in food waste disposal costs. And while 9.6 million Americans currently experience hunger, saving just 5% of U.S. food waste could feed them. The nearly 1 billion hungry people of the world could be lifted out of malnutrition on less than ¼ the food that’s wasted in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, asserts Tristram Stuart.
Food waste has increased over the years, and the trends in food consumption and production are exacerbating the waste of food and water. As people around the world move up from poverty, they consume more meat, fruits, and vegetables that spoil more quickly and consume more water (40% of global grains, often irrigated, are fed to animals that produce meat and dairy products). Today foods imported from all over the world make the food chain more complex and increase the distance to market, creating more opportunities for wastage. In addition, a globalized food chain means that food waste in industrialized countries has global implications. Excessive consumption and waste in wealthy countries reduces the overall supply of food, takes food off the world market, raises global food prices, and impacts the water resources where the wasted food is produced. For example, much of the U.K.’s wasted food is produced in Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Thailand, countries that face water scarcity and high water stress.
Reducing food waste at every stage of the food chain would lessen the need for food production, and thus conserve water. Here are some of the solutions proposed by the FAO.
In industrialized countries, food production exceeds demand because farmers overproduce to ensure that they can deliver what they’ve promised. Better cooperation between farmers could help them coordinate and supplement one another’s supply when there’s a shortage. In developing countries where farmers often harvest prematurely because they need money, farmers’ cooperatives could enable them to diversify their products and arrange for credit or loans.
Governments and the private sector should invest in improving storage, infrastructure, and transportation to minimize waste at these stages of the food chain. Tristram Stuart stresses that investing in proven post-harvest technology such as grain stores, fruit crates, refrigeration units and pasteurization, is a much easier, and more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to increase global food supplies than cutting down rainforests to grow more food.
Retailers, particularly in wealthy countries, put too much emphasis on the superficial beauty and perfection of products which results in perfectly good food being discarded if it doesn’t look “right.” Supermarkets should heed surveys that show that consumers will buy “heterogeneous” produce if the taste is unaffected and offer the public a broader range of products. And instead of throwing out so much food, supermarkets should sell food approaching its “sell by” date at reduced prices or donate it to charity for a tax deduction.
All of us need to understand the implications of our diets, and the connection between our food and the global water picture. There are smart choices we can make that will help reduce food waste. If possible, compost leftovers instead of throwing them out. Make meal plans and shop only for what you are going to use. If cooking a large quantity of food, divide it into individual portions and freeze them. Eat smaller servings, and use leftovers creatively.
Finally, because there is relatively little specific information about food waste, much more research needs to be done to better understand global food chain losses if we hope to be able to meet the food needs of the growing global population.