12. Are We Living in the Country of Waste?

If global food waste1 were a country, its greenhouse gas emissions would be the third highest in the world, following only those of the United States and China.2 Students and schools are almost certainly living in that country. It’s worth thinking about what individuals, families, and schools can do to reduce waste, while also recognizing larger systemic issues that need to be addressed.

The country of waste is large: close to 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area is devoted to food that is raised but not eaten.3 Think about all of the food system’s contributions to climate change, from emissions associated with fertilizer manufacturing to plowing; operating farm machinery; and transporting, processing, and packaging food products. Notice that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the food that is grown and processed—and thereby generating those emissions—is never eaten.4 Then add the greenhouse gases, especially methane, released by landfills, the destination of as much as 97 percent of discarded food.5

Where—and how—food is lost and wasted varies by geography, meaning that responses must be adapted to particular regions. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), developing countries account for 44 percent of the global loss and waste. Two-thirds to three-quarters of that occurs during production and storage. Meanwhile, about 56 percent of loss and waste occurs in developed countries, with the largest proportion at the consumption stage. “This distribution,” says the WRI, “suggests that efforts to reduce food loss and waste should focus on stages ‘close to the farm’ in most developing regions and on stages ‘close to the fork’ in developed regions.”6

Systems Perspective: Just as the whole food system contributes to the waste problem, solutions need to take into account the full system (an example of the systems thinking shift from the parts to the whole). “It is important,” according to the WRI, “to note that many technical solutions can be effective only when other parts of the food supply chain are effective. For example, improved on-farm storage will not ultimately lead to reductions in food loss if farmers have no access to a market where they can sell their harvest surplus. Retailers using poor forecasting techniques may place food orders and later cancel them, negating per-unit efficiency gains made by food processors.”7

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warning rates reduced food waste as the third most promising of the 80 strategies it ranks for their potential to avoid or remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.8 Addressing food waste systemically is also an opportunity for solving for pattern (in Wendell Berry’s term)9 by recognizing links among agriculture, climate, land use, and local economies. The World Bank estimates that a one percent reduction in post-harvest losses could lead to yearly economic gains of $40 million, mostly benefiting smallholder farmers.10 By one estimate, the amount of food currently lost or wasted could feed all of the nearly 800 million people who currently suffer from hunger twice over.11

Potentially important efforts to reduce food waste are under way. In 2015, a group of philanthropic leaders spurred the creation of ReFED (Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data), a collaboration of over 30 business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders that produced A Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste by 20 Percent.12 Also in 2015, the UN adopted Development Goal 12.3: “By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.”13

In 2016, an international group of business, government, and NGO leaders (including the heads of Nestlé, Tesco, Unilever, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and representatives of the US, Denmark, Vietnam, and the African Union) signed on to Champions 12.3, pledging to increase political and social momentum to achieve Goal 12.3.14 Later that year, Food Tank published a list of 58 organizations fighting food waste.15

Whether such aspirations will be followed by effective action remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is much that can be done, at every level from households to international agencies. As of 2016, the US EPA16 recommended a hierarchy of food recovery priorities.

Beginning at the top of the hierarchy, the highest-priority strategies, including feeding hungry people, are those that lower the amount of food that is grown and processed, but never eaten. The next level down, feeding animals with food scraps that would otherwise be sent to the landfill, reduces the need to clear land to grow feedstock. Industrial uses help provide alternatives to fossil fuels. Composting builds healthy soil and can lessen the use of chemical fertilizers, though authors such as Tristram Stuart argue that “It is not virtuous to throw food—whole lemons, bananas or whatever—into a compost bin. The value of the compost is a tiny fraction of the resources that went into growing the food and getting it into your home.”17 Finally, any action that keeps food waste from landfills or incineration helps reduce on-site greenhouse gas emissions such as methane as well as emissions resulting from hauling waste.

See the endnotes for a number of approaches identified by a variety of organizations active around the world.18 Focusing on the US, ReFED’s Roadmap lays out 27 actions that it rates as cost-effective and which farmers, food manufacturers and retailers, government, foundations and nonprofits, and investors can take in order to cut US food waste by 20 percent in a decade.19

A sampling of strategies: