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When Good Food Goes Bad

TRASHED Our food waste has hidden environmental consequences.

Note: A version of this story was previously published at OnEarth.org.

We may lovingly handpick our tomatoes at the local farmers' market and buy only organic brands of ketchup. Even so, according to a new NRDC report, Americans waste a prodigious amount of food. Indeed, an astounding 40 percent of food produced in the United States goes uneaten.

Food is lost at every stage of the farm-to-table journey. Take produce: the report estimates that 7 percent of planted fields in the United States go unharvested each year. Some fruits and vegetables are never harvested because of damage from pests, disease, or bad weather. (Consider this summer's record-setting drought.) Produce also goes unpicked when farmers can't find buyers, or when prices are so low they don't even cover the cost of harvest and transport.

Even produce that's harvested may still be thrown out simply because of its appearance: it isn't the right color, size, or shape, or it has other imperfections. If a peach isn't pretty enough, it doesn't make it to the store.

Grocery stores are another source of food waste. Heaping displays of fruits and veggies that are designed to entice consumers crush produce at the bottom. Milk and dairy products with sell-by dates -- which are not the same as expiration dates -- are often pulled from the shelves well before they would spoil. Prepared foods are also an increasing source of food waste, as groceries keep their buffets fully stocked until closing time, resulting in many trays of discarded edibles.

A staggering amount of food waste, however, occurs in restaurants and in our own homes. American families throw out a significant portion of the food they buy, according to the report. "Imagine walking out of the grocery store with three bags of groceries, then just leaving one in the parking lot," says Dana Gunders, a food and agriculture expert at NRDC and the author of the report. "A lot of people are trying to be conscious eaters, but this issue just isn't on their radar," she says. Even when consumers buy organic and limit meat consumption, they often buy and cook more than they can eat.

Restaurants often contribute to the problem by featuring extensive menu choices and oversize portions. Diners leave 17 percent of their meals uneaten, and 55 percent of those leftovers aren't even taken home, according to the report.

Discarded food wastes not only money but other resources. Agriculture occupies vast tracts of land, and 80 percent of all freshwater used in the United States goes to food production. Fertilizers and pesticides degrade the land and water, creating environmental nightmares like the Gulf of Mexico's massive dead zone.

"If that food is not even getting eaten in the end, it's a terrible use of our resources," says Gunders. "And that is a particular concern when you look forward to our future food demand."

The environmental consequences also extend to landfills, where food waste from all steps in the farm-to-table journey accounts for 20 percent of the total volume. As it rots, the waste generates an astonishing 23 percent of the country's emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Gunders's report offers numerous suggestions for reducing food waste. Relaxing appearance criteria, distributing unsold produce to food banks, and reducing portion sizes in restaurants and at home could all help. Another idea: educate consumers about expiration and sell-by dates, which are not regulated by law and often imply that food has spoiled prematurely. "Even a little bit of awareness could go a long way," Gunders says.

image of Justine Hausheer
Justine E. Hausheer is a science and environmental journalist with a penchant for paleontology, wildlife, and far-flung ecosystems. She has a degree from Princeton and a master's in science journalism from NYU.
Another idea that would help would be more prevalent municipal compost systems, and encouraging those that are able to compost in their yards. That would alleviate the issue of filling landfills and methane production, as well as providing a soil amendment that could be returned to farms to offset some of the resources used in food production.