Food Wasteland: What World Environment Day Hopes to Address

Posted by Rodrigo Mejia

Global Food Waste

The world is awash in wasted food. Almost half of all global food production finds a place squeezed between piles of trash in landfills, dragging along with it squandered financial investments and ever-crucial environmental resources. 

The result is a widening gap between those who are free to waste food and those who cannot afford to, in addition to undo pressure put upon a fragile environment. It's enough of a concern to be the topic of discussion at this year's Word Environment Day (WED) in Ulaanbaatar, the capitol of Mongolia, on June 5.

The official theme: “Think. Eat. Save. Reduce your Foodprint.” This is an extension of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) study to address food waste. Co-partners are also hosting the event, which has been in held annually since 1972.

Global Food Waste and Environmental Strain

According to the study, which bares the same name of the World Environment Day theme, an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year—the equivalent of $1 trillion in lost value. A similar study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that this represents roughly 30-50 percent of all food produced. By contrast, wealthy nations were recorded wasting 222 million tons of food, nearly matching the 230 million tons of total food produced in sub-Saharan African, where some 239 million people were classified as hungry or undernourished in 2010 by the FAO. 

The UNEP projects that the problem could worsen as the global population numbers reach nine billion in 2050, further entangling an already tenuous situation with land use, carbon emissions, and food availability. The UNEP also found that a quarter of all habitable land is reserved for food production and alone draws 70 percent of fresh water supplies—accounting for 80 percent of deforestation and an additional 30 percent of greenhouse emissions.

How to Curb the Trend

The goal of this World Environment Day campaign is to reduce the amount of food waste—while boosting its availability in food-starved regions— and also to curtail current consumption trends in to reflect concerns about climate change.

In the UNEP in a WED statement: “To do more with less is essential for us to live within the resources the planet has to offer. Changing our current living standards requires us to adopt innovative and creative solutions on the way we use and dispose the products and services we own and consume.”

To make these necessary changes, WED offers a few solutions. The first is to support smallholder farms, which redirect the disbursement of land resources to local growers who understand how to sustain fertile ground. As detailed in a report assembled by the United Nations, "Smallholders, Food and Security and the Environment," for every 10 percent increase in local farm yields, there was a seven percent reduction in poverty. In essence, incentivising smallholder farms will supply both food and jobs to the people who need them.

Another goal is more creative and inline with the culture exchange inherent in WED: explore the many techniques exercised by the peoples of the world on how to preserve food and keep it viable. An example posted on the WED website mentions Mongol Empire troops who didn't rely on long supply lines because they carried with them condensed chunks of beef, no more the size of a human fist. “Tiny amounts of the concentrated beef protein (known as 'borts') could be sliced off into hot water to make a high nutritious soup.”

What You Can Do and What's Already Being Done

While seemingly novel, “borts” remain a staple in a rapidly growing Mongolia, and this process relates to the small measures expected of each global citizen to curb food waste and its branching effects. In a GOOD post earlier this year, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) Executive Director Peter Lehner explained how American citizens often fumble with dated labels attached to their food, often mistaking good produce for spoil. “They are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. One survey suggests that 60 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely because of confusion over expiration dates,” he wrote. 

Misconceptions like these add up over time, as detailed in the recently released NRDC report on food waste. How much? The average American throws away between $28-$43 worth of food each month. Add this to the stream of waste produced by restaurants, schools, and large food producers, and an environment is created where the United States is losing 40 percent of all its food to waste bins and dumpsters.

To cut into the amount of waste, writer Dina Buck at the Pachamama Alliance offers some individual and civic solutions, including supporting local food rescue projects and pushing for composting services from cities. The NRDC report estimates that getting the amount of waste down to 15 percent would feed 25 million additional Americans—and also cut into the vast costs needed to dispose and manage growing waste piles.

Others are also rallying for action. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken note of the toll of food waste. On June 4, they partnered to launch the "U.S. Food Waste Challenge." Targeting agribusiness and suppliers, the program hopes to halt waste upstream. It calls for 400 organizations to commit to reducing waste by 2015 and a total of 1,000 signed-on participants by 2020 (there are currently less than a dozen on board). The hope is to “lead a fundamental shift in how we think about and manage food waste in this country,” the EPA wrote in a release.