Feast of burden
The hidden connection between food waste and climate change
There is a shrivelling tomato in your fridge, a weekold cucumber, some leftover chicken salad from three days ago. There are two overripe bananas on the counter. All of that cost less than $3. So, what’s so bad about wasting a few bits of food? Tossed food from North American kitchens, European restaurants and Asian food markets is contributing to a staggering global problem: climate change.
One-third of all food produced globally either never makes it to the table, or doesn’t get eaten. That is 1.3 billion tonnes of food — the weight of 10,000 CN Towers — worth nearly $1 trillion. The energy that goes into the production, harvest, storage, transportation and packaging of that food — energy that is ultimately wasted — produces more than 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
If food waste were a country, it would be the thirdworst emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the United States and China. Eliminating wasted food would be like taking 500,000 cars off the road.
It is a devastating amount of environmental damage, and one that few people are aware of.
“The impacts (of wasted food) are typically quite removed from us personally and quite delayed,” says Evan Fraser, Canada Research Chair and professor of geography at the University of Guelph.
“One of the functions of living in the city is that we import all of our goods and export all of our waste and, as a result, we live in an artificially clean environment that has essentially reduced the feedback between ourselves and the natural world.”
When it comes to food waste, almost every country in the world deserves part of the blame.
In the developed world, most wasted food comes from consumers who buy more food than they eat — high-income countries (excluding Latin America) are responsible for 67 per cent of wasted meat. In the developing world, inefficient farming and lack of storage is the primary culprit.
In the United States, about 40 per cent of all edible food is thrown away, according to the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental non-profit. There, supermarkets lose about $15 billion annually in unsold fruit and vegetables alone, while restaurants throw out 10 per cent of the food they purchase.
In Canada, things are just as bad. A 2014 report by Oakville-based Value Chain Management, a company that helps corporations reduce food waste, concluded that wasted food costs more than $30 billion annually. The real shocker? That 51 per cent of that waste happens at home, said Martin Gooch, one of the report authors.
“Let’s remember this . . . that over $15 billion worth of food is wasted in our homes,” says Gooch. “It’s a lot of money.”
The number often makes people do a double-take. Yes, he confirms, Canadians do throw out just as much food as all U.S.
supermarkets toss fruit and vegetables.
A variety of groups are now trying to call attention to this waste.
Feeding 5 K, for instance, prepares meals for 5,000 people from food headed for landfill. It originated in England in 2009. In Canada, a Feeding 5 K event in May at Vancouver Art Gallery was called the largest free outdoor lunch. The menu included beef sliders, spring rolls and chocolate banana pudding.
There was a much-publicized meal in October in New York City where a former White House chef prepared a meal for world leaders — again from food destined for landfill. It was dubbed the Trash Lunch and included bread made from spent grains that are a byproduct of beer brewing.
The environmental damage from wasted food isn’t limited to additional greenhouse gases.
Wasted water from growing and harvesting lost food is the equivalent of the entire annual flow of the Volga, Europe’s largest river. And there is wasted land: produced but uneaten food takes up almost 1.4 billion hectares — about 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural land.
Tammara Soma, a University of Toronto PhD student who is studying ways to end dumping food in landfills, especially in Indonesia, fears food waste in developing countries is going to get even worse. That’s because they lack composting programs.
“They don’t have sanitary landfills, or space, and they don’t have the technology to deal with it. It’s like a ticking time bomb in so many ways.”
Food that goes into landfills breaks down and produces methane, a gas that is 21 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
People “think that if food goes to waste, it just disintegrates,” says Soma. “We don’t live near landfills, and most people don’t know the science behind it and how food breaks down.”
In the Indonesian city of Bogor, 69 per cent of the garbage collected is food waste, she says. There, food gets dumped in the open and creates combustible piles. “Sometimes, because they are unstable or because of methane gas, they explode.”
One of the most notorious incidents occurred in 2005 when a massive dumpsite near Bandung, Indonesia, exploded, triggering an avalanche that killed 143 people. Most of the victims were scavengers who eked a living scouring the gigantic dumpsite for anything of value.
For food experts, the solutions are straightforward: Buy only what you need; don’t throw out food that’s still edible; eat deformed or blemished fruits and vegetables; improve industrial storage and shipping; and encourage restaurants to find better ways of dealing with leftovers.
Maybe that shrivelling tomato in your fridge can be spaghetti sauce.