The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that ⅓ of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year. Target 12.3 of the SDGs calls for halving per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2020 and reducing food losses along with the production and supply chains. 

Food loss refers to food that is spilled, spoiled, or loses quality and value during processing in the food supply chain. Meanwhile, food waste refers to food that completes the food supply chain up to a final product, of good quality and fit for consumption. But this food is ultimately discarded and therefore doesn’t get consumed.

We connected with Barbara Bray, MSc, RNutr, MBE, a TEDx speaker and nutrition strategist and Amanda Lownes, MPH, RD of Leanpath to learn more about the environmental impacts of food waste and some solutions to combat it.  

What environmental problems are caused by food waste? 

Amanda: When we think about the environmental problems caused by food waste, we need to consider all of the resources that went into growing, transporting, processing, and storing that food, such as water, fuel, land and electricity. If food ends up in a landfill and not in someone’s mouth, we’ve wasted all of the resources that contributed to getting that food on the table. Thirty percent of food is wasted globally across the supply chain, contributing 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions

When food waste is tossed and sent to landfill, it produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 84x more potent than CO2. While the asparagus stems, bruised apples, and stale loaves of bread decompose relatively quickly in the landfill when compared to something like plastic, food emits harmful methane gas that warms the planet while decomposing. Unfortunately, uneaten food is the single largest component of solid municipal waste

Food waste’s impact spans beyond environmental problems, too. Food waste exacerbates food insecurity as well as malnutrition and is a costly economic problem. 

Barbara: The UNEP Food Waste report 2021 shines a spotlight on food waste as a source of greenhouse gas emission, a burden to waste management systems and a contributor to climate change, nature and biodiversity loss.

How can we track food waste? What are some successful initiatives and/or policies that you’ve seen around the globe? 

Amanda: Tracking food waste comes in several forms; it depends on the desired results and scale of operations. A residential home may keep a paper log of the types of food wasted to help prevent overbuying in the future, while a commercial kitchen may use a formalized tracking software, like Leanpath, to track food waste across an organization. When tracking food waste in a commercial setting, you should capture what is wasted, why the item went to waste (spoiled, bought too much, etc.), and where it’s going next (compost, donation, landfill, etc.). 

There are a whole host of exciting policies and initiatives around the globe centered around food waste. U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 calls for cutting per capita global food waste in half, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, by 2030. The U.S. Foods Loss and Waste 2030 Champions are a group of businesses and organizations that have made a public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their own U.S. operations by 50% by the year 2030. There are also state and local city initiatives taking place to prevent and divert food waste from landfills. 

Whether the initiatives and policies are on a global or local level, prevention starts with understanding the scope of your food waste by tracking it. When you track food waste you gain insights into root causes and are able to make smart changes to prevent the waste going forward.

Barbara: In the UK we have the Courtauld Commitment 2025 which is a voluntary agreement for organisations across the food system to improve the sustainability of food and drink production. Launched in 2015 it commits to cutting carbon and waste associated with food and drink by up to one fifth by 2025 and to reduce water stress. The measurement of food waste is facilitated by another organisation called WRAP (Water & Resources Action Programme), who together with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) designed a toolkit and roadmap to help business set out their methodology and reporting of food waste.

France introduced legislation banning supermarkets from disposing or destroying food, obliging businesses to donate it or put it in the animal feed system. Italy has also developed legislation to encourage food donation by reducing the administration and legal barriers associated with giving away food and making it cost effective.

How can we combat food waste on an individual level? Institutional level? Etc? 

Amanda: Combating food waste should prioritize the prevention of waste first, then focus on feeding hungry people, animals, industrial uses, then composting. 

Simple habit changes such as buying and preparing only what is needed, freezing and storing food properly, purchasing imperfect foods (oddly shaped carrots, gently bruised apples, etc.), and incorporating soon to spoil foods in weekly planning can have a huge impact on reducing an individual’s food waste. Paying attention to what is being wasted is an essential strategy, however you choose to track your waste. 

Institutions can implement similar waste reduction techniques, regardless of their kitchen size. Institutions can also leverage their influence and audience to lead by example and inspire others to make food waste prevention a key focus in their food service operations. They can set public targets around food waste reduction and work to create a culture of food waste prevention in their kitchens. 

Barbara: I was fortunate to join the team that set up the American Chef, Dan Barber’s pop up restaurant WastED in London a few years ago. It was based on the concept of taking materials that couldn’t be processed in food factories such as fish heads, chickpea water, ends and sides of vegetables and using these foods in restaurant meals. It was a great insight into how we could make better use of the whole of an animal and plant rather than wasting it. I think each one of us can take one food and use it better.

Other examples of institutions include the New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger in the USA, who pioneered a gleaning project to take unharvested produce from the field and get it to communities in need. This initiative tackles waste at farm level which is not necessarily captured or discussed. In Denmark, there is a surplus food supermarket WEfood dedicated to selling food that would otherwise have been wasted to packaging damage, expired best before dates or cosmetic defects. The food in these shops is 30-40% cheaper than in regular supermarkets. This is a concept that could be replicated in other countries and is more inclusive than food banks.