Pondering the Amount of Wasted Food in a Hungry World

Watching the garbage men hoist our two trash cans this morning and dump the past few days’ scraps and packaging into their truck, I wondered whether we humans will ever solve the problem of waste. Comparatively little of what Sandra and I buy goes into our stomachs or onto our backs (or into our pets’ stomachs). Most of it goes in the trash.

trashEverything is over-packaged.  Layer after layer of plastic and paper must be peeled away to get at whatever is inside. And, of course, there’s the food we waste, too. It’s impossible to buy and cook food for just two people. Nothing is sold in small enough portions. That’s our excuse, anyway. What’s yours?

Very few people are like my longtime friend Marguerite, who lives in Port Antonio, Jamaica. She is the kind who recycles just about everything. Peels go in the compost, and trash that can’t be recycled is compacted. Very little is wasted in Marguerite’s household. But most of us are too lazy or too harried to follow that kind of regimen. In a world where millions starve, we dump tons of food each year.

A new study published by the nonprofit Public Library of Science shows that the amount of food Americans waste has risen by approximately 50 percent per capita in the past 35 years. Today Americans waste 40 percent of the country’s available food supply.

That equates to 1,400 calories of food per person every day – 150 trillion calories per year. On average people require 2,000 calories a day. So each American throws away almost enough food  to feed an extra person.

A similar study in England and Wales found that people there are needlessly throwing away 3.6 million tons of food each year. The Waste & Resources Action Programme found that salad, fruit and bread were most commonly wasted and 60 percent of all dumped food was untouched.

childrenI am sure you don’t need to be reminded of the global food crisis, which has become even more alarming since last year’s financial collapse (precipitated by Wall Street’s recklessness and greed).  According to the World Food Program, 50 percent of Madagascar’s children “suffer retarded growth due to a chronically inadequate diet” (photo at right). And that’s just one example of the intolerable suffering a skewed economic system imposes on so much of the world’s population. While Americans waste 150 trillion calories a year, the UN reports that one billion people are going hungry worldwide.

In addition, at a time when water scarcity is becoming an increasingly worrying global problem, Americans waste a massive amount of water when they throw out food instead of eating it. The Library of Science researchers said that, “assuming agriculture utilizes about 70 percent of the freshwater supply, our calculations imply that more than one quarter of total freshwater use is accounted for by wasted food.”

leftoversAnd that’s not the only disastrous consequence of the western world’s profligate behavior.  The Library of Science researchers point out that the rise in food waste is contributing to disastrous climate change. According to the study, food waste in America consumes approximately 300 million barrels of oil every year from the fossil fuels used in farming. In 2003 this was 4 percent of the nation’s total oil consumption. (The  study does not incorporate greenhouse gases emissions due to land-use changes, such as deforestation, for growing the food that is ultimately wasted.)

Ironically, while waste balloons in the United States, hunger has also increased. With soaring unemployment, about 49 million Americans are going hungry, according to a recent government study. Meanwhile, the nation is afflicted by an obesity epidemic. Obviously, those who have enough, consume too much. And waste too much.

As we survey those Thanksgiving leftovers crowding the fridge today, this might be a good time to make a mental note to add a New Year’s resolution about cutting down on waste.