The impact of Food Waste

The food production process involves stages like growing, processing, packaging, and selling. Food waste is noticeable in every stage, causing a loss of resources used in each step and increasing the social cost.

Considering this process as a chain helps pinpoint issues. In the initial “upstream” stage, food is grown, processed, and readied for sale. In the “downstream” phase, food is well-prepared but still gets wasted, not necessarily due to its quality. The farther down the chain, the more energy and resources are wasted, amplifying the environmental impact.

In 2013, the FAO studied global food waste and found trends. Wealthier countries waste more in the “downstream” phase, involving consumers and businesses. Developing nations waste more “upstream,” often due to infrastructure problems like lack of refrigeration or proper storage.

Food loss and waste result in financial setbacks for everyone involved in the food supply chains, consumers included. Moreover, it showcases a remarkably ineffective utilization of resources such as labor, water, energy, and land. This inefficiency not only influences climate change but also adds to a range of unfavorable social effects, all of which could be prevented. To tackle this issue, it’s crucial for all players in the food supply chain to work together through collaboration and partnerships. [12]

To truly grasp and make the most of the positive outcomes linked to reducing food loss and waste, it’s vital to establish effective governance structures and enhance the development of human skills. In addition, investments in infrastructure, technology, and innovation play pivotal roles in this effort. The path toward minimizing food loss and waste requires a collective commitment, smart planning, and strategic investments that hold the potential to create a ripple effect of positive change.

How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?

Food waste has significant environmental implications, involving the inefficient utilization of vital resources like energy, fuel, and water, particularly in the production phase. Agriculture, which accounts for up to 70% of global water usage, places strain on freshwater resources, notably with water-intensive foods. The cultivation of crops and the raising of animals, especially for meat production, require substantial water investments. The inefficiency in food production utilizes 21% of freshwater, 19% of fertilizers, 18% of cropland, and 21% of landfill space. Effectively addressing food waste is paramount, given that discarding one kilogram of beef results in the wastage of 50,000 liters of water, underscoring the importance of resource efficiency and environmental preservation. [13]

When food is left to decompose in landfills, it releases methane, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that’s actually twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide. This methane hangs around for about 12 years and captures heat from the sun, contributing to the warming of the planet.

Responsible for roughly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, this process’s impact on climate change intensifies when considering emissions from natural resource use. Establishing an efficient food waste management system has the potential to curtail a significant 11% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. A report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research reveals that one-third of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions originates from food waste. To provide perspective, treating food waste as a separate entity would position its greenhouse gas emissions as the third-highest globally, surpassed only by the United States and China. Carbon dioxide (CO2), a critical greenhouse gas, is released from fossil fuel activities, wildfires, and natural processes, contributing to global warming, with human activities elevating atmospheric CO2 content by 50% in less than 200 years. [14] , [15]

Global food security heavily relies on trade, constituting 19% of global consumed calories. Despite its crucial role, the environmental impact of food trade, specifically its carbon footprint, raises significant concerns. Challenges in understanding carbon footprint data, often associated with “food miles” indicating energy use and emissions, hinder comprehensive assessment. Notably, global food miles contribute 3.0 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, with transportation accounting for 19% of food system emissions. Transport emissions from fruits and vegetables surpass those from their production, underscoring the importance of localized food production and improved food-system management for both environmental sustainability and food security. [15]

In the context of food consumption, individuals contribute to the negative impact on land in two ways: through the land used for food production and the areas designated for discarded food. Agriculture utilizes a substantial 11.5 million hectares of global land, consisting of “arable” land suitable for crops and “non-arable” land unfit for cultivation. Surprisingly, a vast 900 million hectares of non-arable land are dedicated to livestock for meat and dairy production. The increasing demand for meat leads to the conversion of arable areas into grazing pastures, causing gradual land degradation and unsuitability for natural growth. This highlights the excessive strain on land for food production, jeopardizing its future yield capacity without a more thoughtful approach. Such actions disrupt natural landscapes, harm biodiversity by eroding animal habitats, and pose a significant threat to ecosystem food chains. [15]

In the context of food consumption, individuals contribute to the negative impact on land in two ways:

through the land used for food production and the areas designated for discarded food.

Agriculture utilizes a substantial 11.5 million hectares of global land, consisting of “arable” land suitable for crops and “non-arable” land unfit for cultivation. Surprisingly, a vast 900 million hectares of non-arable land are dedicated to livestock for meat and dairy production. The increasing demand for meat leads to the conversion of arable areas into grazing pastures, causing gradual land degradation and unsuitability for natural growth. This highlights the excessive strain on land for food production, jeopardizing its future yield capacity without a more thoughtful approach.

Such actions disrupt natural landscapes, harm biodiversity by eroding animal habitats, and pose a significant threat to ecosystem food chains. [15]

Biodiversity, representing the intricate web of species within an ecosystem, faces the consequences of agriculture’s impact on the environment. Practices like mono-cropping and transforming natural landscapes into areas suitable for livestock disrupt the fragile equilibrium of ecosystems. The conversion of wild spaces into agricultural land leads to deforestation, pushing native species to the brink of extinction.

The underwater domain is similarly affected, with marine life declining due to excessive fishing, causing disruptions in aquatic ecosystems. Surprisingly, while global fish consumption outpaces population growth, wasteful practices in developed regions result in discarding 40-60% of fish, posing threats to aquatic food security and the well-being of oceans. Addressing these challenges underscores the urgent need for a balanced relationship between human consumption, agricultural practices, and the preservation of biodiversity. [15]

If you want to learn more on food waste statistics, consequences and EU acts go to Module 4.