In the U.S., we’ve become accustomed to excess in every form. The supermarkets overflow with more calories than any one of us could ever need, the shopping malls with more clothes than any one of us will ever wear. But all of that goes unnoticed as we hurry about our busy lives. Who has time to try and grind the wheels of corporate consumerism to a halt?
But the problem of waste is one that will not go away unless each of us have something to do with it. Waste and loss along the road from plow to plate result in up to 40 percent of our food finding its way to the trash instead of our hungry mouths. This issue represents tremendous expenditures of energy and water, plus dangerous and unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, the solution to this dilemma is within our grasp — simply raising awareness, spurring common sense changes in our shopping, and encouraging more efficient eating and disposal habits may one day be enough to convince our culture to shift away from such self-destructive practices of consumption.
“Food waste” is essentially the excess of leftover food product that is never ingested by consumers and utilized in the process of cellular respiration. Food loss happens when food spoils within the supply chain from the farm to supermarket shelves. Developed countries have less food loss, but a higher rate of food waste than underdeveloped countries. Food waste and loss amount to 1.3 billion tons of unconsumed food per year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. In the U.S. alone, 70 billion pounds of food ends up in the landfill. Food waste costs the average U.S. household $2,275 per year or $167 billion dollars across the country.
But there are more pernicious side effects of food waste. Besides the vast amount of greenhouse gasses produced by the machinery of the supply chain, food that ends up in the garbage pail produces environmentally toxic gases carbon dioxide and methane during decomposition. Taken together, these food waste gasses contribute 3.3 gigatons of equivalent CO2 every year, which Direct Energy says is comparable to about 20 million SUVs. Additionally, food loss and waste are squandering 25 percent of the Earth’s precious freshwater.
Why Do We Waste?
Our country’s interpretation of what it means to be “full” would likely be challenged by most other nations in the world. In Japan, the concept of “hara hachi bu” is a commonly accepted Confucian practice meaning to eat until one’s belly is at “80 percent” capacity. Food is fuel, calories are energy, and we have access to far more than we truly require. For me, the first step was simply realizing the “unnatural” reality of what our food system has become. I had to gradually come to understand that most of what crowds the supermarket shelves isn’t actually “food”, that our bodies are better off being a little hungry, and that the calories we consume are a privilege worth respect.
Most of us are not fully aware of the huge impact food waste has on our planet. But a closer look – at the semis belching smog in the grocery store parking lot, at the day-old bagels in a trash bag outside the corner shop – can start average consumers on a path towards discovering the profundity of the problem. To “solve” the problem of food waste we must all together strive towards taking back our food, and in the process, return some of that respect to the planet we call home.