When we waste food we waste energy

Americans waste approximately 40% of the food produced in the US. Let’s just think about this staggering statistic for a minute. 40% of all the food grown in the US never makes it into a human’s stomach. This uneaten food literally ends up rotting in landfills. Even more concerning is this figure seems to only be growing over time. Additionally, during the food’s journey from the field to your dinner-plate (if it makes it that far) it has consumed a substantial amount of our precious natural resources including energy and water. Let’s break it down. 

Where in the supply-chain is food being wasted?

We’ve all opened our refrigerator looking for a snack and been greeted with that not-so-pleasant odor indicating something has spoiled. We’ve sniffed around trying to locate the culprit and through that journey discovered several other items that have passed their prime. By the end, we’ve thrown out half the food that was in there! I can be honest and admit to you that this has happened to me on more than one occasion. In fact, the average American throws away 20 pounds of food each month! That means a family of four buys 960 pounds of food a year that goes uneaten. 

But even if consumers were better about only buying what they actually eat, a lot of food is tossed before it ever makes it to your home. The wasting begins all the way back in the fields where farmers are unlikely to harvest crops that they think won’t sell (i.e. crops that don’t look that great). The wasting continues during transport where some of the produce is damaged. Then, at the store, the produce that is a little too ripe, a tad wilted, or otherwise imperfect is often overlooked by the consumer. The store ends up throwing out whatever is left. To think after all that, the food that does make it to your home still has a good chance of being tossed out before realizing its purpose. This wasted food translates to approximately $2,275 per year for a family of four. The food waste in the entire US ends up totaling $165 billion annually

How much energy and water are we wasting?

The energy embedded in wasted food in 2007 was estimated at 2030 Trillion BTU. Additionally, since 80% of the freshwater goes to food production that means 32% of the consumed freshwater annually goes to making food that no one will eat. Imagine what we could do with all that energy and water if we as a country did a better job growing and buying only what we actually would eat. Now that’s food for thought.   



(photo credit: PBS)




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5 responses to “When we waste food we waste energy

  1. Hirsch2013,
    Excellent reminder for people that food production is energy and water intensive. As our world population grows so will the required need for food and water (as well as the water and chemicals that go into food production). Of great concern of is the growing consumption of red meat in places like India. A slightly dated New York Times article indicates that the consumption of red meat in developing countries such as India, China, and Brazil will double between 2000 and 2050 [1]. Raising more meat for consumption requires land and feed. In other words, energy. Fertilizers, infrastructure to move the livestock, and refrigeration to keep it safe for consumption all play into the energy costs of meat consumption. In fact India’s red meat production was estimated to have grown by 316,000 metric tons from 2009 to 2010 [2], and in a country where food shortages are not uncommon should more be done to discourage meat production?

    [1]: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/science/earth/04meat.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    [2]: http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s1377.pdf

  2. montanez82

    That’s very interesting, I always knew we as a country wasted a lot of food and energy in that wasted food, but I am certainly surprised by the actual numbers you presented. I am curious though, if we exported that left over, yet still edible food to another country that faced famine how much would it cost, both in terms of money and energy consumption. Would it be economically feasible?

    Also, what if the wasted food (at least from the farmer, transporter, and grocer side) was all sent to designated land fills which used the decaying material’s gas to use in a power plant and/or made biomass granules or briquettes to use as a fuel source. I’m not sure what the Ein-Eout would be, but it would be interesting to see a study done on this. Transportation of the waster to a certain location would take a substantial amount of energy and release CO2, but would the new fuel source be worth it? (Maybe I will do my research paper on that, who knows?)

  3. tmann216

    I’ve often thought about this issue, but hadn’t seen what the actual damage amounted to. The numbers you presented are pretty staggering. One thing that has really cut down on the amount of food we throw away in my house is a counter top vacuum sealer. We are a household of two, so in the past it has been difficult to use produce quickly enough for it to stay fresh. Since we got the vacuum sealer, we have thrown almost nothing away, pretty awesome for an investment of ~$100. It also has the added benefit of allowing us to buy meat in bulk, which saves a lot of money too.

    I think it would be excellent if we could find a way to implement something like what this website (http://www.wastedfood.com/food-rescue/) is discussing on the large scale. It seems like the government policy is on track for encouraging businesses to participate in programs like these (i.e. tax credits and protection from liability), so why aren’t more businesses doing this? Maybe this idea just needs more publicity because it seems like a win-win situation to me…

  4. I would like to broaden the scope of this blog post to a global scale.

    Food Waste on a Global Scale

    I first heard about this issue through the TED talk “The global waste food scandal” by Tristan Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. In his book, Stuart outlines that both Europe and America disposes of half of the food produced. In his TED talk, Stuart breaks down the allocation of food produced around the globe as follows:
    • One ninth is wasted due to the lack of infrastructure (refrigeration, pasteurization, grain stores, etc.) to bring harvest to market – an issue primarily seen in developing countries.
    • Three ninths are feed to livestock. Of the three ninths, one third is turned into edible meat and dairy. Thus, only one ninth of the three ninths invested is returned.
    • Two ninths will eventually end up in the garbage.
    • Ultimately, only four ninths of the food produced globally reaches our mouths.

    Changes in Policy

    The U.N. has taken note of the issue and has pledged to cut food waste in half by 2025, but few governments and industries have acted. It is evident that as we head to a more sustainable future, policy and technology have to step forward to address this issue. An effective start could be to require supermarkets to publish figures on their food waste, so as to encourage competition to waste less food. This will then allow governments to put a cost on wasted food in industry and help shape public disapproval of food waste. These changers are necessary to ensure that the population (9 billion by 2050) is sustained in such a way that the impact of the planet is minimized.

  5. Pingback: How Changing Your Diet Can Reduce Carbon Emissions | Energy, Technology, & Policy

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