Why Does Food Waste Matter?

Current Location: London, UK

We’ve all heard the admonition from our parents, “finish your plate, there are starving children in Africa.” It is admittedly a strange expression because the relationship between my plate of food in the United States (or anywhere else) and a food insecure person in a developing country is not clear. I’ve been writing and talking about food waste for a while, but as this expression demonstrates, there isn’t a clear link between personal food waste from an individual in a developed country and the real global impact.

My mom sent me an email this week asking a really important question, “Do you think that my reducing our family’s food waste would have any impact on the environment or world hunger?” I think the answer is yes, to a degree. While finishing your plate of food is not going to directly help starving children in Africa, there are real and important impacts of reducing food waste.

Food waste anywhere can have a harmful impact on the environment.

Food waste is an enormous source of greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the emphasis on reducing GHG emissions is (rightfully) focused on the energy sector because it by far produces the greatest amount of GHG emissions. However, I am an advocate for picking the low hanging fruit of reducing emissions; there are many incredibly easy ways for the world to reduce GHG emissions outside of the energy sector and I think every bit counts. Reducing global food waste presents an enormous opportunity. Based on life cycle assessments by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, the carbon footprint of food wasted is around 4.4 Gt CO2 equivalents per year.

“If food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.”

fao pic
Source: FAO (2011)

Food waste matters for local food security.

No matter where you live in the world, it is highly likely that there are people in your community that are struggling with regular food security. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2016 12.3% of households were food insecure. In developed countries, the vast majority of food waste occurs at the household and commercial levels. In other words, food waste comes from people throwing away food at home, from restaurants disposing of unused food, or from grocery stores/food retail businesses. Much of this food is perfectly edible and could easily be allocated to those in need. Many developed countries, particularly EU nations, have excellent systems in place to help redistribute good food that would otherwise be wasted.

A few years ago while I was working at World Resources Institute, I put together an informal research document on global foodbanking. In order for food to be rescued, there need to be two types of systems in place: an incentive structure for businesses to donate surplus food, and a foodbanking system to manage and distribute food to those in need. Both are critical for success. In the US, we have a strong foodbank system, but lack the incentive structure for food donations. In fact, because of the litigious culture in the US, I would argue that there are probably disincentives for food donations. Good Samaritan Laws which protect donors who donate surplus food in good faith from legal repercussions.

Even though there are many opportunities to improve policy in the EU, Europe has one of the best foodbanking systems and many European countries have extremely well-developed networks. France actually banned food waste to incentivize donations, and there is a petition to enact similar legislation in the UK. The European foodbanking network (FEBA) helps join foodbanking systems, and works to model and support best practices and policies to incentivize donations. Canada also has a well-developed network, but unlike several European countries, there are almost no opportunities for receiving tax credits for donations. For some food retailers, without tax credits, it is actually cheaper for food to be thrown away than to be donated. Tax credit and VAT policies are clearly crucial for success, and many foodbanks have indicated that this is a priority. In South American and Asian countries there is very little government support, if any, for foodbanking, and the legislation is often confusing and even conflicting. There are few African nations with foodbanks, and aside from South Africa, they are relatively new and small.

There are many opportunities for foodbanks in all areas to work with policymakers to incentivize donation, clarify laws, and increase their impact. What’s important to note, is that not all foodbanks can work off of the same model. Many EU countries and other developed nations have foodbanks that function well because there is a surplus of food that is not sold but is still edible. This makes rescuing food much easier, whereas in some African countries the supply of excess food does not exist. To operate successfully, foodbanks must have a good understanding of the food systems in their region and have a target supply of food. They must also have a good understanding of the most in-need populations and charities to make distribution efficient and effective. Not all countries will function in the same way based on the supply and the demand of donated food. Countries establishing foodbanks should look to successful banks as a model, but also recognize where they succeeded, why, and whether or not that success can be replicated.

In short, redistributing surplus food has real consequences for food security in every part of the world, and there are policies and systems that can encourage improved distribution of resources.

Food waste is part of a culture of wastefulness.

Lastly, as I wrote in a previous post, we need to change the culture of thinking that our actions don’t matter. Food waste is part of that. Since I’ve moved to Europe it has become even more clear to me how little American culture values sustainability and how much we value consumption. As one of the world’s largest and most influential economies, we desperately need to change these values. Valuing sustainability as a society will have real impacts on waste, pollution, consumption patterns, and probably most importantly, the salience of the environment on political agendas.

I hope this gives some insight on why I feel so strongly about food waste, and waste in general. I love talking about this with people and I’m always happy to engage in productive discussion on these issues! Special thanks to my mom, and my dad as well, for caring so much about the things I am passionate about.



1 thought on “Why Does Food Waste Matter?”

  1. I believe there is a real misunderstanding about the expiration labels so that alot of food which is ok to use gets thrown out. Maybe the food is not at its peak freshness but you won’t be poisoned. Perhaps there needs to be a “don’t use after this date” label.
    Also in the “olden days” we used to cut out bruised or rotty parts of fruits and vegetables but could stew the rest into fruit compote and braised vegetables. No reason to throw the whole piece out.


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