UN food agency stunner: World loses one-third of total global food production

Bloom: “2% of all US energy goes to food we’re throwing away.”

Figure 2 shows that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280–300 kg/year. In Sub- Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia it is 120–170 kg/year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg/year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia, 460 kg/year.

By Tyce Herrman, the first ever Climate Progress intern, in his first post

The agriculture sector is one the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, approximately 10–12% of the global total according to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change.

Climate Progress’s ongoing series on food insecurity explores both how climate change is affecting agriculture and how agriculture is contributing to climate change. This post examines something close to our hearts (and stomachs): food waste.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a study on food production last week that concluded 1.3 billion tons of food is lost each year. That’s one third of total global production. This inefficiency in food production and consumption reflects wasted energy and consequently unnecessary GHG emissions.

According to FAO, food loss in developing countries has multiple causes:

The causes of food losses and waste in low-income countries are mainly connected to financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. Given that many smallholder farmers in developing countries live on the margins of food insecurity, a reduction in food losses could have an immediate and significant impact on their livelihoods.

Food waste is rampant in the developed, rich nations of the United States and Western Europe, driven by overwhelming consumption demands on all levels of the supply chain (See the FAO graph above).

Farmers are forced to throw out produce that is not up to supermarket’s aesthetic standards and plow under whole fields of ripe produce if market prices aren’t sufficient to cover labor expenses. Produce farmers will often plant a secondary field in case the yields are not as high as expected. If yield requirements are met sufficiently with the primary field, the secondary field is simply plowed under.

Manufacturers dump whole pallets of food when supermarkets decline a purchase. Supermarkets throw out shelves of food when they’ve passed “best use by” dates, even though the food is still perfectly safe for consumption. In 1995, the USDA found that 5.4 billion pounds of food were thrown out by retailers.

Finally, consumers in the developed world notoriously throw out tons of unconsumed food they let rot — approximately 210–255 lbs per person. Food is viewed as an endless luxury to those who can afford it.

Climate Progress spoke with Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, who pointed out that America actually exceeds the global average of one third and wastes about 40% of its total food production. This food production is highly resource intensive. As Bloom pointed out, “We are so removed from the agricultural process. Most people have no idea how many resources are used in farming.”

What does food waste mean in terms of climate change? “When we throw away 40%, 40% of resources invested goes for naught, for nothing” said Bloom. He estimates that “2% of all US energy goes to food we’re throwing away.” The vast amount of water, oil, and other resources that go into farming are squandered, and the gears of industrial agriculture spin with no purpose.

The FAO study on food waste calls for consumer patterns to drastically change in the U.S. and Western Europe. Bloom had several ideas that could shift our understanding and use of food.

  • The federal government should outlaw organic matter in landfills altogether. This will require us to re-think food’s value and role and how wasteful we can be with our food. Bloom quips, “We’ll have to ban it eventually, why not now?” Norway and Nova Scotia have already banned organic matter in landfills.
  • More incentives for farmers to harvest all they grow and not plow under crops like a more streamlined tax deduction process for food donations from farmers and retailers.
  • A stronger government gleaning programs that could bypass some of the economic barriers preventing farmers from harvesting all their produce.
  • Public awareness campaigns showing people ways to reduce waste and reconnecting them with agriculture

Changing food consumption patterns here and now in the United States and abroad will help reduce the inevitably rising pressure on food prices from climate change, peak oil, and changing diets. It would also have a significant impact on mitigating climate change. Bloom concluded that right now we are “aiding climate change from our kitchen trashcans.” Each of us can start by being more careful with what we eat, and most importantly, what we don’t.

Tyce Herrman is a rising senior at Stetson University in DeLand, FL. He is pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science and a B.A. in Philosophy.