Imagine you are eating lunch, and you become too full to finish your meal. What do you do? Sure, you can store the rest of it in the refrigerator and save it for later, but how many times have you opted to just throw it away? Maybe you took too long to use some food you had, and it went bad, so you threw it away. Do you ever stop to wonder what’s happening to all of that food? Tossing a few vegetables or a few remaining bites of a sandwich may seem harmless, but in fact, it is contributing to a deeply systemic problem significantly fueling the climate crisis.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of all the food produced for human consumption is ultimately wasted. That’s 1.3 gigatonnes of edible food being lost worldwide every year. Let’s put this number into perspective: one gigatonne equals one billion metric tons. This means the sheer volume of food waste outweighs the collective mass of all land mammals walking the Earth and doubles the weight of the global human population. At the same time, there are about 815 million people around the world suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition. But considering the yearly $2.6 trillion wasted food financially represents, this would be sufficient enough to feed all those people four times over.
In The United States alone, up to 40% of the edible food grown each year does not get consumed, and when it is thrown away, it is not just the food that is being wasted, but it is also the resources it took to grow and bring that food to one’s kitchen table. These resources include water, arable land, large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, and the fuel used to power harvest and transport vehicles as well as storage facilities. Approximately 70% of all freshwater is funneled into agriculture for livestock and irrigation purposes, which means that a certain amount of water is wasted each time virtually any kind of food is discarded. Discarding a bruised apple that may not have appealed to you, for example, wastes roughly 125 liters of water. Throwing away a kilogram of uneaten steaks is dramatically worse as it takes almost 15,500 liters of water to produce them. The FAO has even calculated that 250 km³ of fresh water––three times the size of Lake Geneva––is used on a yearly basis to produce the food that is either lost in production phases or wasted in consumption phases.
In terms of available arable land, our planet has very little of it left leaving developers to tap into valued natural forested ecosystems and other high biodiversity habitats to acquire more. Because wasted food accounts for 28% of the world’s agriculture areas, this means that deforesting those areas and clearing carbon dioxide (CO₂) sequestering trees is essentially for nothing. With far fewer trees to filter the air, the carbon footprint of food waste grows that much stronger, dispensing the greenhouse gas equivalent of 3.3 billion metric tons of CO₂ on a yearly basis. And due to the organic nature of food waste, it emits methane as it rots under the ground in landfills, which is 28 times more potent than CO₂ over a 100-year period in the atmosphere.
Not only would taking measures to reduce food waste alleviate the pressures on our scarce natural resources and climate system, but it would also eliminate the gargantuan task of increasing food production by 60% to meet the demand projected for 2050 in which the population is projected to reach 9.7 billion. Luckily, there are tangible steps that are being taken in many places, including Israel, to mend these environmental problems while patching up what we know as the conventional food system.
Plastic is Not the Answer
Those of us who scrape remaining food portions from our plates at home into the garbage, however, are not solely responsible for the outrageous annual volume of global food waste. Through deals, the market often encourages consumers to buy more than they actually need, which means much of that food often goes bad before it can be used.
Because supermarkets and retailers never want to run out of anything, it has facilitated the majority of consumers to expect fully stocked shelves with plenty of aesthetically pleasing options. But overstuffing shelf space like this inevitably encourages waste because more products wind up reaching their expiration dates at which point, they are discarded to make room for fresher products.
With limited shelf life playing a significant role in the generation of food waste, efforts have been made to improve it. Solutions, however, have revolved around the use of single-use plastic wrapping and packaging because it is thought of as a small investment to also preserve the resources that went into making the product. While plastic does preserve the quality of food for slightly longer, and studies have shown that food products are less likely to be wasted if they’re wrapped in plastic, it’s trading one problem for another––the plastic crisis.
Although resourceful practices like composting, in which plant food scraps are recycled back into the earth through a biological decomposition process, are growing in popularity, it is not nearly enough to resolve the sheer scale of food waste issues. Thankfully, The Natural Step’s Israeli branch is putting forth a new initiative to tackle the food waste issue in Israel without the use of excessive plastic, and it is a step in the right direction for a more mindful, ethical, and environmental discourse around food.
One Step Forward
Because of Israel’s semi-arid and desert-like conditions throughout much of the country, over the years, engineers have developed and applied sophisticated sustainable technologies within their agricultural sector to maximize crop yields, particularly water-saving technologies like drip irrigation, desalination, and wastewater recycling. But in light of the fact that Israel now wastes 2.5 million tons of food per year valued at a cumulative total of NIS 20.3 billion, it begs the question, what good are sustainable growing methods if much of the food (and the resources it took to produce it) gets thrown out anyway? That’s 35% of all of Israel’s domestic food production, and half of that food, most frequently in the form of fruits and vegetables, is considered edible.
“Food is not just another commodity like clothing or shoes, it’s something that we must have in order to live, and we need to make sure we have enough security for the system,” says Michal Bitterman, CEO and Co-Founder of The Natural Step’s Israeli branch. “I think that we can see all of the symptoms that prove we’re not treating the planet well.”
On average in Israel, about 2.5 million tons of food is wasted yearly, and according to Bitterman, food waste became even more common in the past year due to the overcompensating precautions many people took during the initial waves of COVID-19. In addition to environmental and societal costs, food waste also incurs a heavy and persistent financial burden, costing each Israeli household an average of NIS 670 on a monthly basis.
“When food is wasted, it’s not just the physical food product that we’re losing; it’s all of the resources that went into creating that food product as well,” Bitterman explains. “It’s also important to note that 10% of climate change is caused by food waste. It’s a lot.”
In addition to generating awareness, facilitating education, and giving helpful advice to avoid copious amounts of food waste from being created, The Natural Step has launched a new initiative involving Dynamic Pricing. In this case, this method lowers the cost of food items as they near their expiration dates to address surplus issues and incentivize consumers to purchase them before they are removed and discarded as waste. Up until now, this method has not been applied within Israel due to the current agreements that exist between manufacturers and supermarkets that establish food items nearing their expiration dates must be removed from the shelves and thrown away even if that date has not yet been reached. Doing so has prompted both economic and environmental transparency.
But the fact that all this food is being wasted indicates that our agriculture is producing way too much of it––although it perhaps wouldn’t be if poverty and lack of accessibility were not so prevalent.
“I think there’s an ethical problem here. I don’t think we need to produce such a large amount of food and then throw it away. We need to be more aware and conservative because it’s crucial for our living,” Bitterman comments.
Without initiatives like these, food waste issues in Israel and throughout the world will continue to rise every single year, prompting greater emissions and concentrations of pollution each time. Although some supermarkets have already begun using stickers to designate dynamically priced food products, it needs to become a ubiquitous practice in order to influence sustainable behavior among producers and consumers. Luckily, The Natural Step is actively searching for willing participants to get involved and adopt the initiative to kickstart real systemic change.
ZAVIT – Science and the Environment News Agency