Food waste : its economic and environmental consequences

According to the UN, one out of nine people in the world does not have access to sufficient food and more people die from hunger than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. However one third of the food produced in the world is wasted : that discarded food would be enough to feed the 870 million hungry people around the world according to the FAO. More than a moral responsability, food waste has a strong impact on the environment and the economy.

First let’s see the difference between food loss and food waste. Food loss is unintentional wastage : it is often due to poor equipment, transportation and infrastructure. Food loss often occurs in developping countries whereas food waste, which is food voluntarily thrown away by retailers and consumers, occurs more frequently in wealthy countries. There are several reasons as to why food waste occurs : an important part of the food is wasted during the production process and a bigger one is wasted during the distribution and consumption process. Food waste can happen because of oversupply of food, because of stringent quality and aesthetic standards, because consumers fail to plan their meals and their food goes past the expiration date or because consumers do not buy products that are misshaped or « ugly ».

Let alone the fact that food waste is immoral because of the millions of people starving in the world, it has severe environmental and economic consequences. In a time were water, and especially fresh water, is precious, throwing away food contributes to wasting water : studies have shown that throwing away 2 pounds of beef equals to wasting 50,000 liters of water that was used to produce that meat. Then, they are serious concern about how to feed the world’s growing population : there is not enough land to feed everyone some say, but the truth is that one third of world’s agricultural land is used to produce food that is not going to be consumed. If that land was not wasted to produce that uneaten food, it could be used for efficient purposes! Wasting water and land is not only a resource problem, it is also an economic problem : taking care of the land, fertilizing it and putting crops on it cost money : a lot of money is lost because of food waste. Furthermore, fuel is used to process, refrigerate and transport that food : not only fuel is expensive, it releases greenhouse gases that cause climate change. But what is maybe the most alarming fact about food waste is that the food that is uneaten often goes to landfills where it decomposes and emits methane, which is a dangerous greenhouse gas.  Food that is sent to landfills emits 7% of total greenhouse gases emissions : if food waste was a country, it would be the third emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the United States and China.

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Let’s see in terms of money the consequences of food waste. A report by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) says the total cost of food waste is approximately 400 billion dollars a year. If we take the case of consumers, a study in the United Kingdom has shown that on average, a family discard 1170 dollars worth of food each year ! By buying food in harmony to what is really going to be eaten, consumers would save money that could be used for better quality food or for purchasing other products or services : their level of welfare would be higher since they would be able to purchase more with the same budget ! Governments would also save money by not sending food to landfills : it cost money to transport that food, and one of the aftermaths of food waste being climate change, it cost money as well to respond to the consequences of climate change.

So what has been done and what else can be done to prevent food waste ? A few counties in the United States, such as the Hennepin County (Minnesota), provide grants to local businesses and non profit organizations to help recycle food products or turn them into compost. In South Korea, people have to pay for garbage removal proportionally to the weigh of their garbage : it encourages people to throw out less food. WRAP in the UK has launched several campaigns to urge consumers to plan before they do their grocery shopping and to freeze their food, WRAP has also worked with supermarket chains to reduce waste by clarifying expiration dates and selling smaller portions : these efforts have cut food waste by 21% between 2007 and 2014 in the UK. Also, the supermaket chain TESCO has targeted « waste hot spots » : lettuce is one of the product that is thrown away very often. Therefore, TESCO has changed its lettuce packaging : lettuce is sold in a bag with two compartments, this way the consumer can une one half while the other stays fresh. To prevent food waste, producers should really take into account the demand and better harvesting, storing and distributing processes should occur, and if despite these efforts there is food that remains uneaten, it should be redistributed to people in need or at least turned into compost : this way it is good for the cultures and it does not releases greenhouse gases, contrary to when it is send to landfills. As for consumers, the should plan their meals so that they don’t buy more than they need and they should not be afraid of buying « ugly » products : « ugly » vegetables still can be used in soups for instance !


Alissia Leclerc


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