Agriculture is responsible for enormous amounts of habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution, making it one of the biggest threats to biodiversity worldwide. When food is wasted, so are the natural resources and wildlife sacrificed to our food system — and we waste a lot of food. Read our report on food waste in grocery stores: "Checked Out: How U.S. Supermarkets Fail to Make the Grade in Fighting Food Waste."
In the United States, 40% of edible food is wasted — about 1,200 calories per person every single day. Not only do we waste more than the global average, but the amount of food we waste has tripled over the past 50 years, increasing at a faster rate than our population. Every year $218 billion worth of food in the United States is simply thrown away, at a steep cost to wildlife, the environment and the 1 in 7 Americans who don’t get enough to eat. Check out our Beat Food Waste resources for tips on reducing food waste at home.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third top emitter of greenhouse gas emissions after China and the United States, accounting for 3 billion tons of carbon emissions. In the United States, uneaten food is the single largest source of trash in landfills, which account for 18% of the country’s methane pollution, a greenhouse gas that’s 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
And over the past 50 years, greenhouse gas emissions from food waste have increased more than 300%, and are projected to increase another 400% by mid-century if current dietary and waste trends continue.
In addition to the environmental cost of producing food that goes uneaten, food waste also has a direct impact on wildlife and ecosystems:
Deadly Dining: Food waste attracts bears and other wildlife, which often has lethal consequences. The more we throw out, the more wildlife come to rely on the buffet of edible food in our trash cans, drawing them closer to the places where people live. This leads to human-wildlife encounters that can result in damaged property or injury as the animals search for new food sources. In most cases the large animals involved in these encounters — or even those that just get too comfortable among humans — are considered a threat and killed.
Predator Potluck: There are 1.6 billion tons of food left in fields, sent to landfills or otherwise thrown away around the world, plus 7 million tons of fishery discards dumped back into the sea. This newly introduced food source can throw off the balance of ecosystems by allowing some species populations to surge. For example, a recent study found that fish-eating birds like western gulls around Monterey Bay have been feasting on fishery discards and landfill garbage, and the resulting increase in their population is contributing to the decline of steelhead trout. A marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz estimates that as many as 30% of juvenile steelhead trout are falling to prey to the booming gull population.
Food waste is responsible for 21% of freshwater use, contributing to the loss of riparian ecosystems and the decline of the yellow-billed cuckoo, a “rain crow” once known across the western United States for its song heard just before thunderstorms or summer showers.
Wasted meat and dairy have a greater environmental impact per pound than wasted grains or fruits and vegetables. It’s not just the end-product thrown away, but also all the feed, water, land, pesticides and fossil fuels that went into raising the livestock. Animal products are also responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than three-quarters of the wasted land associated with food waste.
Every day people in the United States throw out more than 660 calories from beef, chicken and pork per person. According to a University of Minnesota study, throwing out a pound of boneless beef wastes 24 times more calories than throwing away a pound of wheat. The feed, water and land required to convert plant calories into animal calories makes animal agriculture an inefficient way to feed people. Even more resources are wasted when you consider the loss between the size of the animal and what winds up in the meat department case — for example, only about 40% of the weight of a steer becomes hamburgers and steaks.
Seafood often isn’t included in the impact of food waste on climate and land use, but the industry’s impact on ocean ecosystems can’t be ignored. Bycatch, the non-targeted fish and other animals caught or killed by fishing gear, is the leading source of the seafood industry’s waste.
In the United States, 10% to 12% of what’s caught by commercial fisheries is bycatch; some fisheries, such as shrimp trawling, can be as high as 64% bycatch. This adds up to as much as 714 million pounds of wasted fish, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine animals caught in the seafood industry’s nets each year. Globally as much as 40% of the world’s catch may be wasted bycatch.
Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the fastest-growing threats to large whales on the West Coast. Between 2014 and 2015, the record number of large whales reported entangled in fishing gear in California, Oregon and Washington doubled from 30 to 61, including humpback whales, gray whales, fin whales, a blue whale and a killer whale.
Seafood waste can be reduced through stronger fishery management and closure of the most destructive fisheries, expanding endangered species and critical habitat protection for marine animals threatened by commercial fishing, and eating less seafood.
The best way to address food waste is to stop it from happening in the first place — preventing food waste has twice the lifecycle greenhouse gas benefit per ton compared to recycling food. While programs such as composting are preferable to food waste winding up in a landfill, they don’t address the emissions, land, water, pesticides and other threats to wildlife that went into producing the uneaten food.
The majority of U.S. food waste happens once food hits the shelves, where it’s either thrown out by businesses or in the home. Policies are needed to standardize date labeling, keep edible food on shelves longer, and make it easier to donate food to those in need. Businesses and individuals need to shift their buying practices to minimize the amount of uneaten food that gets thrown away on farms, in stores and restaurants and in homes.
By increasing public understanding about food waste, we can save as much as 281 billion gallons of water and the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking nearly half a million cars off the road. Better understanding food waste — and what to do about it — will not only reduce individual food footprints but help create the demand that businesses and policymakers need to curb food waste.