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How Food Waste Happens at Every Level of the Food System: What you can do to Help

Updated: July 19, 2022
Farmers harvesting rice

How is it that a world with an estimated 690 million people suffering from hunger can completely waste one-third of the total food produced? There are inefficiencies plaguing every level of the food supply chain, ultimately causing the catastrophic problem of food waste. From the farmer who grows the food, to the grocery store that sells it, to the person who throws it away in their own home – food is wasted all the time. Read on for a summary of the facts surrounding food loss and waste and what you can do to prevent it.

Food being thrown out: food waste occurs throughout the food chain.

Production

From farming to processing to transportation, the amount of food wasted before reaching the fork amounts to 30 to 40 percent of all food produced by farmers. During the farming process, food can be wasted due to market demands, production costs, and other external factors. Only about 10% of all food wasted occurs during the manufacturing process, which still amounts to a lot of wasted food.

Farming

Food waste occurs when crops are planted, grown, and harvested for a number of varied reasons. For one, an unforeseen change in the market, such as the sale price of a particular crop falling below that of the cost of production, may necessitate leaving a field unharvested. Not only does this mean that an entire field of food may be lost or wasted due to a simple reduction in demand, but it also means that all of the greenhouse gases emitted up until that point (due to the energy required to plant and water those crops), were for nothing.

Some food produced on farms ends up being wasted.

The same is true when the cost of production surpasses the sale price. Perhaps the cost of labor unexpectedly rises, or the water bill skyrockets due to aridification and drought. In the end, the production of food needs to be tied closely to those who need it around the Wolrd, not to the whims of market economics.

Farming is an unpredictable business. The food that is grown each season is subject to weather, pests, and other external factors. As a result, farmers often end up with surplus food that they are unable to sell. This ends up being wasted food.

Manufacturing

After food is harvested, it is sold and processed through manufacturing facilities, continuing to emit greenhouse gases along the way. Still, not all of the food is processed and manufactured. Some are left to rot in these facilities due to their aesthetic shortcomings.

Some food is wasted as a result of the necessities of the manufacturing process itself. For example, the first lot of food products produced within the manufacturing line may not necessarily match the standards as described by the food label for that particular product, as labels are calibrated for production when it occurs at full speed. Since regulatory measures require that manufacturers describe their products exactly on a label, it’s a safer bet to throw out this first lot of food products.

Focus on food waste reduction by supporting companies pledged to reducing food waste.

While some food waste in manufacturing is inevitable, there are ways to reduce it. For example, many facilities donate their wasted products either to organizations that find ways to pair hungry people with this food or organizations that compost food waste instead of throwing it away. Additionally, new technologies and processes are being developed all the time that aim to make less food waste during manufacturing.

You can do your part by supporting companies that have implemented policies to reduce food waste.

Manufacturing in Low-Income Nations

In lower-income nations, food is wasted due to structural issues, including a lack of adequate storage (refrigerators, freezers, containers, etc.) and an inefficient transportation system. These infrastructural deficiencies, coupled with the fact that food is often grown by smallholder farmers who lack the resources to bring their food to market, make food waste a significant problem in lower-income nations.

The food supply chain in low-income nations relies on deficient infrastructure, leading to considerable food waste.

Consumption

Food waste occurs the most during the consumption phase for higher-income nations, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and those industrialized nations in Europe and Asia. From the food thrown out of grocery stores for being aesthetically unappealing to the overbudgeting of food elsewhere, there are food losses throughout the food supply chain after harvesting and processing.

Grocers and Retail

About 30 percent of food in American grocery stores is thrown away, with US grocery stores generating about 16 billion pounds of food waste every year. One of the biggest factors for grocery stores when considering products to be sold is their aesthetic appeal. Oftentimes, foods that are imperfect are thrown out because consumers probably won’t buy them in the first place.

Consumers

By far, the greatest share of food waste in the United States comes from consumers throwing away food at home – about 43% of it. The culprit is overbudgeting. Consumers buy too much food expecting to eat all of it when they only end up eating a fraction.

Food, including fruits and vegetables, ends up being wasted by consumers in the home - accounting for 43% of all food wasted in the United States.

Consumers also often misunderstand expiration labels. Even if the “best if used by” date has passed, the product is still safe to consume. The “use by” date is the expiration date that describes the food’s perishability over time. If the “use by” date has passed, it’s not safe to consume the product.

Consumption in Low-Income Nations

Whereas lower-income nations find it more difficult to effectively distribute food due to infrastructural issues, consumers in lower-income nations throw away much less food compared to consumers in high-income nations. It highlights the fact that these consumers are much more likely to be experiencing food scarcity than consumers in high-income nations.

Reducing Food Waste: Steps You Can Take

You can make a difference in food waste by taking some small steps in your everyday life.

  • Plan your meals for the week and only buy what you need from the grocery store. This will help reduce food waste from overbuying. If you do have leftovers, save them and eat them later.
  • Don’t be afraid of imperfect fruits and vegetables! Embrace their unique shapes and sizes by cooking them in a creative way.
Imperfect foods are still edible.
  • Support companies and organizations that are committed to reducing food waste.
  • Compost your food scraps instead of throwing them away.
  • Educate yourself and others about food waste. The more people are aware of the problem, the more we can do to reduce food waste.

Conclusion

Remember, stopping the overproduction of food products at the source is the best way to reduce emissions in the long run. While finding ways to use foods that would otherwise end up thrown away is still beneficial, it’s not the best way to mitigate climate change. If consumers start buying less food and supporting companies that pledge to produce less, then the market will follow.

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