I like leftovers.
To me, it just feels wrong to throw away perfectly good food, so I do my best not to let leftover food go to waste.
But wasted food isn’t just a household problem; in fact, it makes up a hefty percentage of our landfills. Wasting food is a global problem with global implications, and unfortunately, eating our leftovers just isn’t enough to successfully tackle it.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we unnecessarily waste more than 30 percent of our food in the United States. If we don’t bring these numbers down, the waste can affect not only our food production, but also our ability to fight hunger and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There are, however, ways we can stop sending so much food to the landfill, and if we’re successful in reducing this food waste, we can see improvements in other areas, too.
Why aren’t we eating all our food?
It’s difficult to pinpoint any one specific reason why we waste food on such an epic scale, not because reasons are difficult to find, but because many reasons contribute equally to the problem.
The first is the food industry’s unattainable standard of perfection. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Instead, we readily discard about half of the high-quality and nutritious food we produce simply for not being pretty enough to display on grocery store shelves.
Another reason is the distance food travels between where it’s grown and where it’s eaten. Most of our food is produced in concentrated areas: 99 percent of our almonds come from a small, drought-stricken area in California, for example, and most of our greens come from California’s Central Valley. Corn, soy, and dairy all come primarily from concentrated regions, and the average item on an American dinner plate has traveled 1,500 miles to reach our table. Much of that food goes bad en route and must be thrown away, regardless of its appearance when the journey began.
Why does wasting food matter?
Like most children, I remember my parents scolding me when I didn’t eat my vegetables, reminding me that people around the world were starving. It seemed a silly and far-fetched connection then, but now I realize how much sense it makes. Our food production and consumption habits in the U.S. really do affect the world around us.
A recent study by the World Bank concluded that nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions come from farming and food production. The USDA also reports that 80 percent of the country’s consumptive water is used for agriculture. In areas that rely intensively on agriculture and that are drought-prone (like many of the Western states), that number is closer to 90 percent.
To keep up with demand, almost all the arable land in the United States is currently under cultivation. As a result, we face issues with pesticides and other hazardous substances seeping into our lakes, streams and oceans.
In developing countries, deforestation is occurring rapidly to convert land for agricultural purposes. All these impacts can be significantly reduced just by addressing the issue of excessive food waste.
What can we do about it?
It’s hard to overstate the environmental impact of wasting food or the benefits of learning to reduce food waste. But every change begins with one small step—or many small steps that we all take together.
For instance, we can seek out and purchase foods that may not be perfect in appearance but are still perfectly fresh and nutritious. Retailers can start stocking more of this produce and can create incentives for people to try it—like offering it at more competitive prices.
We can grow food closer to where we consume it. That can manifest in many forms, from consumers remembering to eat what’s in season to boosting urban agriculture and the diversification of food production systems across the country.
Buying locally supports local farmers and food producers, and buying only what’s necessary (instead of buying in bulk) helps us reduce waste in our own households.
I’m still relearning what is in season and when. But now I take pride in tasting the difference between a delicious local in-season tomato and a tasteless one that has traveled halfway around the world to get to me in January. I take just as much pride knowing that I’m doing my small part in reducing the far-reaching effects of unnecessary food waste.