The High Costs of Wasted Food ; despite Global Poverty, One Third of Production Is Never Consumed

By Gardiner, Beth | International New York Times, April 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

The High Costs of Wasted Food ; despite Global Poverty, One Third of Production Is Never Consumed


Gardiner, Beth, International New York Times


Around the world, there is increasing awareness of the resources squandered to produce food that is never eaten.

Chinese diners are posting pictures of empty plates online, urging friends not to order more than they can eat. South Korea is charging for garbage removal by weight in hopes of persuading families to discard less food. Massachusetts is barring large businesses from sending kitchen waste to landfills, and British supermarkets are improving labels and packaging so that customers throw out less of what they buy.

Around the world, food waste is increasingly seen as a serious environmental and economic issue. With many families on tight budgets and the global population growing every year, there is increasing awareness of the resources squandered to produce food that is never eaten. Businesses, governments and activists are working to get more of what is grown onto tables, and less into garbage cans.

The United Nations estimates that a third of all the food produced in the world is never consumed, making for a total of about 1.3 billion tons of waste a year. In the United States alone, about 40 percent of all food, worth an estimated $165 billion, is wasted, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported in 2012.

In the developed world, the food discarded by retailers and consumers alone would be more than enough to feed the world's 870 million hungry people, Jose Graziano da Silva, the director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said last year in introducing Think, Eat, Save, an anti-waste campaign that the organization runs with the United Nations Environment Program.

In Britain, which has some of the most comprehensive data on food waste available, each family discards, on average, 700 pounds, or $1,170, worth of food a year.

"If you look at human history, other than the very affluent, families would always make the most of food," said Richard Swannell, director of sustainable food systems at the Waste and Resources Action Program, or Wrap, an anti-waste organization in Britain that compiled the figure. "As affluence came through, we took our eye off it."

The environmental consequences of waste are enormous, experts say, with vast quantities of water, fertilizer and land used to produce food that is never eaten, and with fuel burned to process, refrigerate and transport it.

Food waste that decays in landfill, with no oxygen present, emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

All told, that waste creates 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. If food waste were a country, the agency points out, it would be the third- largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the United States.

In developing nations, food waste often happens soon after harvesting, when crops are being stored or transported, because a shortage of refrigeration and good roads makes it difficult to get food to market before it spoils. In wealthier countries, waste often begins with retailers' rejecting items that they think will not appeal to customers. But the single biggest source of waste is in homes, Wrap estimates, where about half of all uneaten food is discarded.

The organization has sought to draw attention to the issue with its Love Food, Hate Waste campaign, which urges shoppers to plan before shopping and to freeze more food. People should also trust their eyes and noses, the campaign advises, rather than relying on sell-by dates to decide whether food is spoiled.

The organization is working with supermarket chains to reduce waste by clarifying expiration dates, selling smaller portions and using resealable packaging for perishables like cheese or frozen vegetables.

Such efforts have helped Britain cut food waste by 21 percent since 2007. It is the only country in Europe to have achieved such a reduction, said Clementine O'Connor, a senior consultant at Bio Intelligence Service, a French sustainability consulting and audit firm owned by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. …

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