Food waste is one of the most pervasive problems facing us today, economically, socially, and environmentally. With 7.8 billion mouths to feed worldwide, and 800 million people contending with malnutrition, we cannot afford to allow food supplies to go to waste. Yet every year fully one third of the food meant for human consumption is tossed or lost.
It’s staggering to think about the consequences of this waste. All told, the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted each year could feed three billion people. If we could recoup just a quarter of this loss, we could feed 870 million people globally. That’s more than two and a half times the population of the United States. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9 billion people. To meet the demand for food, we will need to increase food production by 70 percent over current levels. This is a tall order, even under ideal circumstances. Even as we are facing down this challenge, we are also navigating the threat posed to agriculture by climate change – it is the sector most threatened by changes in weather and temperature patterns over time.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, behind China and the United States. Food waste is tied to about 4.4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide each year. That’s equivalent to the emissions produced by more than 956 million passenger vehicles in the course of a year. To put that into perspective, in 2015, there were an estimated 263.6 million vehicles registered in the U.S. The good news is, tackling food waste is a greenhouse gas reduction strategy that is eminently local. It starts at home, and everyone can participate.
With all these overwhelming facts and figures, you have to wonder, what is causing this incredible glut of wasted food? Are we that inherently careless with our resources? Are we that ignorant of suffering around us? In short, no. There are a few systemic elements at work that shape how we purchase, use, and often waste food resources.
One of the primary problem areas is supermarket standards for the appearance of fruits and vegetables. On an annual basis, half of the produce in the United States, or 60 million tons of food, is thrown away because it is considered too “ugly” to be sold. Our aesthetic standard for produce is a real impediment to resolving the food waste issue.
Additionally, there are some real consumer education issues at hand. More than 60 percent of consumers don’t understand the difference between “best by” and “use by” dates on packaging. Those items with “use by” dates are typically perishable and must be consumed by a specific date for health and safety reasons. Those with “best by” dates can be eaten after the date printed on the package but their flavor or quality may decline.
If you’re looking for concrete ways to take on food waste at home, here are five ideas for you.
1. Plan Ahead: Simple meal planning is one of the best ways to combat food waste. Before you go to the store, take time to write down the meals you plan to eat at home during the week ahead. Note which ingredients you have on hand, and which you need to buy.
2. Know Your Cupboard: It pays to know what’s in your cupboard. Keep an eye on staples like flour, sugar, herbs and spices, and items you tend to buy regularly. Make it a habit to check your pantry and fridge before shopping so you don’t end up buying things you already have.
3. Become Storage-Wise: Poor storage techniques can lead to loads of waste. Keep produce in a crisper drawer and separate your fruits and vegetables, if you can. Whenever possible, keep items like apples, bananas, and tomatoes separate from other produce as they tend to release gases as they ripen and can cause other produce to spoil more quickly.
4. Freeze For Freshness: With items like bread or meat that may be too much to eat in a single week, place portions in the freezer to use at a later date. If you have ingredients or produce on the verge of spoiling, go ahead and cook it up and freeze what you prepare for the future.
5. Donate or Compost: When all is said and done, you may still have food waste on your hands. If you know you’re not going to eat something before it spoils, seek out a local food bank or soup kitchen and make a donation. If something has already passed its prime, compost is the answer! You can turn your perishable food scraps into rich soil additives, closing the nutrient loop and making a positive contribution to a local garden.