Approximately one out of every four calories produced to feed people is not consumed. A 2016 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) says that about 40 percent of the total estimated food losses and waste in North America are a result of consumer behavior.
Recently, food waste, defined as food that is thrown away before or after it spoils, has been placed on the forefront of Americans’ minds. According to Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), awareness has increased for many reasons: to combat environmental degradation while feeding a growing population, to fix economic inefficiencies in the food supply chain, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions coming from landfills.
A U.S. survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation explored why food waste happens at the consumer level. According to the results, eaters either forget about perishable food until it’s too late (19 percent), buy too much fresh or perishable food (17 percent), cook big meals and throw away leftovers (8 percent), or serve themselves portions that are too big (7 percent).
To put food waste into perspective, ReFED published the Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 percent in 2016. The report provides a helpful visual, “If all of our country’s wasted food was grown in one place, it would cover roughly 80 million acres, over 75 percent of the state of California, and consume all the water used in California, Texas, and Ohio combined. The mega-farm would harvest enough food to fill a 40-ton tractor every 20 seconds. Many of those trailers would distribute food to grocery stores…instead of being purchased, this perfectly good food would be loaded onto another line of trucks and hauled to a landfill.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that uneaten food in landfills accounts for roughly 20 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Plus, methane is about 27 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), greenhouse gas emissions related to the food supply quadrupled during the last 50 years. The EPA emphasizes the problem—food is now the second-largest source of methane emission in the U.S.
The Think.Eat.Save campaign is a great example of what consumers can do to conserve food and prevent waste. This campaign, founded by Save Food as a joint initiative between UNEP, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and Messe Düsseldorf, provides consumers, retailers, and communities with advice on ways to reduce their food waste. Additionally, Think.Eat.Save advocates for food conservation in other ways, like policy recommendations.
In general, learning about the problem and taking action is one of the best ways to reduce food waste. For the average consumer, ReFED cited education as the most important way to significantly reduce food waste.