If you want to preserve habitats, prevent species extinction, or reduce climate change, one thing you can do is not waste food. It is estimated that worldwide one-third of all food produced is never eaten. The water used to produce food waste is more than is used by any single country, that the land used to produce food waste is a larger area than any country except Russia, and that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gases. Every time we toss out food, we are contributing to deforestation, soil degradation and erosion, habitat loss, and species extinction – all to produce food we never eat.
In developing countries, most food waste occurs in the production and distribution of food, often due to inadequate storage and transportation. Consumers in developing countries waste very little food: 6 to 11 kilos (13 to 24 pounds) per year per person. In Europe and North America, consumers waste between 95 and 115 kilos (209 to 253 pounds) per year per person. In the US, it is estimated that about 40 percent of all food produced is wasted. While food is lost all along the supply chain and there is much that could be done, especially at the retail level to reduce food waste, US households throw out about 25 percent of the food they buy.
Imagine how Americans would complain if food prices went up 25 percent, yet we are not concerned about spending 25 percent on food we throw away. We throw out nearly a third of all produce and grains we buy and about 12 percent of all meat. But before you get all excited about the environmental impacts of wasting veggies, remember that there is much more embedded water, land and energy in animal products than in plants. For example wasting 150 grams (5 ounces) of beef wastes 50 times more embedded water than throwing out an orange.
Another rule of thumb: the more processed a food is and the more packaging it has, the more embedded resources it is likely to use. So simply eating less processed and packaged foods reduces our impact on the environment.
Perhaps the best reason to reduce our food waste is that there are hungry and food insecure people. If we buy only what we eat, there is more left for those in need. In the US where 14 percent of the population is food insecure, there is a food bank system that works with retailers, processors and food producers to source food for those in need. Food that we throw out is food that, had we not bought it, could have been made available to those who would actually eat it.
Of course some food waste is unavoidable. However, we can reduce food waste if we start by taking a good look in our fridge. If we shop for what we need and cook and serve what we will eat, we can save money and save the environment. It just requires a bit more planning and using what we have.
I can hear you grumbling, “But I am too busy to cook or plan.” Then you must have a lot of money to waste, lucky you. Save some money by turning off the cooking shows and just share a simple meal with someone. Think of it as a revolutionary environmental act.
And when we go out (and Americans spend over 40 percent of their food dollar on food away from home), realize that serving sizes at restaurants are on average more than twice the recommended portion size. No wonder we feel so full when we eat out! So don’t feel bad about sharing meals, asking for less, or asking for a doggie bag. Just remember that if you are in the US, tip well so your server can eat, too.
This post is part of our “Reclaim” initiative, which showcases solutions to the issue of food waste and engages our readers to take action. You can find all the posts in this initiative, as well as feature pieces, investigative stories and video, here. Follow the initiative on Twitter at #Reclaim. And if you’d like to add your own thoughts to our series, sign up here for a HuffPost blog account.