Food and eating is a convenience that most of us take for granted. When you look at the process of food production, you’ll see how much time and effort it takes, and even how it can often cause irreparable damage to our environment. This is why it is incredibly important to talk about the rapidly growing problem of food waste.
Food waste is a huge part of our daily lives. It manifests not just in your leftover meals, but in the rejected farm harvests, the surplus produce that farmers don’t know what to do with, the less-than-perfect looking fruits in grocery shops that no one picks, and more. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s responsible for about eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which greatly contributes to climate change.
In this article, we will be talking about why you should care about the problem of food waste, how it causes pollution, and how we can help reduce it.
To learn more about food waste, watch the video below: Food waste is contributing to climate change. What’s being done about it?
Why you should care about food waste
It’s harvest season at Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts.
But Eva Agudelo, Hope’s Harvest Program Director at Farm Fresh Rhode Island, is downtrodden—she knows that not all of this produce will end up at the farm stand. Why?
The growth of corn, for one, is unpredictable. Sometimes it grows at different times, so it’s also harvested at different times. But if the summer is super hot, all of the corn matures all at the same time.
“The farmer does not have sufficient customers, or grocery stores, or whatever, they can actually move that much corn that quickly. So they will just have more corn than they literally know what to do with,” Agudelo explains.
And that’s not the only factor that the farmer is burdened to consider.
According to Agudelo, sometimes, crops are rejected because they are a little too big, or a little too small. If you’re selling potatoes to a French fry factory, for example, they need a very specific size, shape, and weight for the potatoes to fit and work with the proper machinery.
This means that after months of hard work tilling land and tending to crops, all this extra produce will ultimately die before they are even harvested.
How food waste causes pollution
Dawn King, an Environment and Society professor at Brown University, knows the problem of food waste all too well. They say pollution is a sign of waste.
“It goes well beyond what we’re putting into our landfills because 30% of food is wasted or lost before it even gets to the retailer or distributor,” she says.
But why do so many crops end up going to waste in farms?
According to King, this is because we’re very mechanized. This means machines are specifically designed to only harvest the top two-thirds of a plant, because farmers do not want machines getting tangled in dirt. Farmers also leave behind produce that is less attractive, which is known as Grade B quality—and once a set becomes Grade B, it loses almost all of its value.
Because of this, farmers face a really bad predicament. They could give this surplus produce to others, but they have to pay people to pick it, to package it, and finally get it on a truck (which costs fuel), before they can give it to donation sites. All of this cost the farmer money, but zero profit.
But the problem goes far beyond the farm. At every point in the chain, more food is lost. From manufacturing, restaurants, grocery stores, and the worst culprits—consumers at home.
If food is exposed to air when it’s breaking down, it at least has a chance of becoming compost. But when it breaks down in a landfill, it ends up turning into a greenhouse gas.
“It rots when it’s not exposed to oxygen like in a landfill state. And when it rots, it creates methane gas,” says King.
In other words, rotten food in the landfill turns into methane because it’s all piled up, so the food does not get the air it needs to become compost.
“You pile it on top of each other so none of it is exposed to air. And so it does the exact opposite of compost. It turns into a festering methane pile that is 25 times more potent than CO2.”
You know those pipes that they put in the landfills? Those are to let out the methane. And this a serious problem, because methane accounts for 30% of the global increase in temperature. This means food waste is partly responsible for global warming, and for the world to cool down, one of the things we can do is reduce our food waste.
Why you shouldn’t trust expiry dates
A lot of food is wasted because of misleading expiry dates. This causes food to be thrown away before they actually go bad.
“A lot of people don’t realize that expiration dates are not set by the U.S. Government. Baby formula is the only food product that actually has a mandated best-by-date. Sometimes it says sell-by; sometimes, it says best by; sometimes it just has a date,” King explains.
These dates describe how long the manufacturer guarantees the quality of the food rather than how safe it is to eat.
This means that expiry dates usually can’t be trusted, because they don’t actually tell you when food goes bad. In most cases, the consumer has to assume; and that assumption most often ends up wrong, which results in food waste.
“The average store throws away anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 worth of food every day. And the food is anywhere from three days, or sometimes, weeks, before the sell-by date,” says Josh Dominguez, founder and CEO of Flashfood, an app that helps reduce food waste.
According to him, it is not just a story of bad labeling and ignorant retailers; it’s also the consumers. For example, if we buy fruit and there is only one on the shelf, as consumers, we automatically assume it’s the worst one, so the grocer has to overstock the shelves so that we get a selection.
Because of this, we know that both consumers and the food industry can benefit from consumer education. Consumers need to be more mindful of how they shop and consume food, which means unlearning the idea that less-than-perfect looking food is bad food. On the other hand, retailers need to be less ignorant with their labeling, which means more specific expiry dates and better instructions for consumers on how to consume food.
Modern problems require… old-world solutions?
Back at the Four Town farm, Eva Agudelo has another way of reducing food waste—she gathers produce that remains in the field after harvest and gives it away to those in need. It’s an old-time process called gleaning.
Last year, they saved up to 250,000 pounds of food and donated it to hunger relief. It’s an old world solution to a modern problem.
Gleaning, according to Agudelo, is actually in the Old Testament in the Book of Ruth, which means it goes back thousands of years. It’s a very simple solution to the problem of surplus food. Instead of letting food go to waste, it is certainly better given to those in need.
How can I help reduce food waste?
Now that you know the problem of food waste and its magnitude, you may be wondering: how can I help reduce food waste?
Well, even if food waste is a large-scale problem that is better solved systematically (i.e., with laws and special provisions), the good news is, there are still some things you can do to help alleviate this problem. Below are some simple ways you can help reduce your own food waste.
Buy less food
It’s simple, really. If you’re a small family, a couple, or if you live alone, one of the simplest things you can do is buy less food. Buy only what you need, not more. Even if it is generally believed having food in abundance equals food security, this is actually inaccurate. If you do decide to get more food than you usually need, make sure you are able to consume all of it before it goes bad.
Plan your meals
Planning your meals is an efficient way of making sure you have enough food for a certain time period. By planning your meals, you can make sure that you don’t buy too much of things you don’t need or have too little of those that you do.
To do this, start by plotting the days of the week. Then, assign a meal for each day. Next, list the ingredients you need for each meal. Make sure that the amount that you have is proportionate to the number of people you’re feeding.
I know this can seem like a daunting task, but trust me: planning your meals can actually save you a lot of time and stress and, more importantly, reduce your food waste by making sure you have only the right amount of food for your household.
Try kitchen waste composting
If gardening is one of your hobbies, kitchen waste composting is a great way of reducing food waste. What is kitchen waste composting?
Kitchen waste composting is the process of using leftover or rotten food as crop fertilizer. The vitamins and minerals in the food help nurture the soil, which then increases the quality of the crop planted.
To make a compost, simply select nitrogen-rich (green) and carbon-rich (brown) materials. Cut them up into small pieces. Then, bury them into a 14-inch pit. Wait around 3 to 8 weeks, and the compost will be ready.
Composting may seem like too much work, but ultimately, it can be rewarding to know that you’re greatly helping the environment not just by reducing waste and pollution, but also by nurturing and taking care of it.
Food waste may be a rapidly growing problem, but it doesn’t have to be irresolvable. Ultimately, to prevent food waste from polluting our environment, global cooperation is necessary. However, as individuals, it is important that we are mindful consumers as well. Instead of throwing away food, there are a couple of things we can do in order to reduce our own food waste—and the best time to start is now.