War on Waste: What We Can Do to Reduce Food Waste

I remember visiting friends of the family when I was younger who loved to host my parents and their brood.  They would cook these large meals, we’d load up our plates, and—being the dutiful children we were—we would eat every morsel. They would then fill our plates again, and we’d do our bests to clean them, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that they WANTED us to leave some food on our plates as a sign we were full. It seemed contradictory to me at the time, but now I’m married to a man who has the same frame of thought: you aren’t full until you can’t clean your plate.

And what happens to all that extra food on the plate? It goes to waste.

We hear a lot about Americans and our strange relationship to food, but an area in which we can commiserate with our international brethren is in food waste. According to the United Nations, about one third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted or lost. That amounts to 1.3 billion tons; developed nations waste 222 million tons alone, equal to the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.  It does make a difference as to whether you’re living in a developed or a developing nation:

  • Developing nations tend to lose or waste food early on in the food chain due to financial, managerial, and/or technical constraints in harvesting techniques and storage.
  • Developed nations tend to lose or waste food later on in the food chain, and it tends to be more a result of consumer behaviors. In the United States, 30% of all food is thrown away. That’s $48.3 billion in organic waste going into landfills.

Besides the economic repercussions of this waste, organic waste is the largest source of methane emissions. This has strong consequences for the environment and climate change as methane is twenty-three times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Food waste also means unproductive uses of fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the food, waste of fuel used to transport it, waste of human effort in preparing it, and so on.

So what can we do about it?

From a high level view, it’s not something that can be solved tomorrow. Developing countries need to strengthen the supply chain and support farmers via investments in infrastructure, machinery, etc. Developed nations need to also focus on supply chain coordination, but also work on educating consumers and holding retailers responsible for ethical practices.

It’s also becoming an arena for innovation. In the UK, a power plant generated by food waste is in the works. At MIT, cohorts of MBAs are working to solve the waste problem in America. They’ve established a business venture called Spoiler Alert, an online marketplace for the real-time exchange of food. But on a more personal level, there are things individuals can do to decrease overall food waste:

  • Start planning meals in advance, and shop according to your list. Try to resist the urge to buy more than you need, because chances are it will sit in the cupboard or refrigerator until it’s unfit to eat.
  • Learn to read the sell-by dates on food. Just because the date reads June 15 doesn’t always mean that it needs to be tossed on that date...but you should probably make an effort to use it within the next couple days.
  • Consume less protein. It requires more resources to produce and is a huge drain on fresh water globally (one of the best ways to reduce water consumption? Go vegetarian).

Oh, and don’t force food on guests because they’ve cleaned their plates, or because you know there’s more you can eat.

Would you use an exchange like Spoiler Alert to supplement your groceries?