Foodprints for the Future

On climate action, there’s no time — or food — to waste

Agriculture accounts for more than a quarter of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions harm wildlife, reduce forests and deplete freshwater resources.  And when we waste food, we’re not only wasting those natural resources; we’re throwing away calories and nutritional value desperately needed by millions of people.

Often overlooked as a greenhouse gas emitter, food waste accounts for more than 8 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, making it a big contributor to climate change. According to the U.N., if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, only behind China and the U.S.

When food is dumped into landfills, where oxygen cannot interact with the decomposing material, the food produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with 28 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. And while many people focus on  “farting cows,” we should also be looking to our own food waste as a major source of methane — according to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills account for 14 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.

What’s more, morally and economically, food waste leads to food insecurity, which affects 41 million people in the U.S. alone. Food security is defined by the Department of Agriculture as  having “a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household.”

Despite this, we waste 30 to 40 percent of our food supply. That’s roughly 133 billion pounds of food, $161.6 billion USD and 141 trillion calories per year, all ending up in landfills.

As well as experiencing food insecurity, millions of Americans also lack affordable access to healthy fruits and vegetables. For example, 54 million Americans have limited access to supermarkets and live in areas known as “food deserts,” places where there is no physical access to nutritious food.

Without affordable access to nutritious whole food options, low-income communities often get significant portions of their diet from high-fat, high-calorie and sodium-packed processed foods. Overeating processed foods hurts health and burdens our healthcare systems. Socioeconomically, health problems highlight the need to provide healthy, affordable and accessible food options for people across the economic spectrum: According to the State of Obesity, a third of Americans who make less than $15,000/year have diabetes, shockingly disproportionate to the national rate of 9.4%. With the economic cost of healthcare related to obesity in America reported at $147 billion per year, healthier eating could save Americans a large amount of money in the long run.

To address these issues at the consumer level, some federal and state governments have passed laws offering civil protection or tax credits for individual food donors, and some cities have proposed policies to reduce food waste. Vermont, for example, has banned throwing out compostable food in the trash, as has the city of Seattle.

Yet experts agree that the best way to tackle the problem is reducing food waste altogether rather than coping with its effects. Several states are addressing food waste at the wholesale stage. For instance, Minnesota’s Farm to Shelf program provides government funding to a food bank network, Second Harvest. Second Harvest uses the allocated money to compensate farmers for the additional cost of donating surplus produce rather than throwing it out. Programs like these allow the government to make food donations essentially cost-neutral for producers.

Programs that incentivize access to healthy and affordable foods can address climate change and some of food waste’s most pressing moral and economic effects.

To learn more about reducing food waste, check out Earth Day Network’s Foodprints for the Future campaign!