When compared to other problems, throwing away uneaten food may seem like a minor injury to the environment, but the sobering truth is that the environmental impacts of food waste are just as detrimental.
Food that has been thrown away, along with the priceless resources used to produce it covers biodiversity, the societal impact on the environment, and how land and natural resources are used. Food waste accounts for one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and generates 8% of greenhouse gases annually. Given these figures, there is a critical need to lessen this environmental footprint.
Methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than even CO2, is produced in vast quantities by food waste that ends up in landfills. Uninitiated individuals may not be aware that excessive levels of greenhouse gases, such as methane, CO2, and chlorofluorocarbons, heat up the earth’s atmosphere by absorbing infrared radiation. This process results in global warming and climate change.
Food waste represents a significant loss of freshwater and groundwater resources because agriculture uses 70% of the water consumed globally.
According to some estimates, only to produce food that is not consumed, a volume of water roughly three times the volume of Lake Geneva (21.35 cubic miles) is needed. You effectively waste 50,000 liters of water that were used to make two pounds of beef by dumping it away. The same is true for one glass of milk, which wastes roughly 1,000 liters of water.
When it comes to land utilization, around 3.4 million acres, or about one-third of the total agricultural land area in the world, are utilized to cultivate food that is wasted. Additionally, millions of gallons of oil are squandered annually to generate food that is not consumed.
And all of this is without even taking into account the detrimental effects on biodiversity caused by practices like monocropping, in which a field is exploited to produce pure stands of a single crop, and turning wildlands into agricultural regions.
An analysis of the effects of global food waste on the environment was published in a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2013. They discovered global trends in food waste.
They discovered that the “downstream” stage of the production process—when food is wasted by consumers and commercial enterprises—is where food waste occurs in middle- to high-income countries.
Additionally, it was found that developing nations had a higher propensity to contribute to food waste during the “upstream” stage of production, typically as a result of infrastructure issues including a lack of refrigeration, poor storage conditions, technical limitations in harvesting methods, etc.
Table of Contents
Environmental Impacts of Food Waste
1. Waste of Natural Resources
Food waste can have a variety of negative effects on the environment. The three basic natural resources—energy, fuel, and water—used to produce food are wasted when we throw it away.
All phases of the food production process and all resulting food varieties require the use of water. 70% of the water utilized globally is used for agriculture. This includes the water needed for raising livestock, poultry, and fish, as well as for irrigation and spraying crops.
We waste fresh water and food together. Freshwater conservation should be a global endeavor because of the serious water shortage that many countries are experiencing and the likelihood that they will become uninhabitable in a few decades.
A significant amount of fresh water is lost during the production of plants and animals. Foods like fruit and vegetables are high in water content and need a lot of water to grow. In addition, the water requirements for various plant species vary.
Animals also need a lot of water for both their food and for growth. Meat is the food that is thrown out the most despite the fact that producing it requires more water.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), food waste results in the loss of one-fourth of our water supply in the form of uneaten food. That amounts to water waste of USD$172 billion.
Additionally, they found that nearly 70 million tons of food are grown, transported, and processed at a cost of over $220 billion, with the majority of that food ending up in landfills.
By consuming up to 21% of our freshwater, 19% of our fertilizers, 18% of our cropland, and 21% of our garbage volume, we can generate food that is wasted. A kilogram of wasted beef is the same as 50,000 liters of water.
The amount of water wasted by washing a glass of milk down the drain is close to 1,000 liters. In addition, considerable volumes of oil, diesel, and other fossil fuels are consumed due to worldwide food transportation.
2. Water is Wasted.
Water is necessary for life, so it should come as no surprise that food production depends on it as well. Water is necessary for agriculture to thrive, not to mention for feeding the animals that provide us with our meat, fish, and dairy products. This is true whether it comes via irrigation, spraying, pouring, or some other method.
However, we also waste untold millions of gallons of water that were used to cultivate, develop, nourish, or otherwise generate the millions of tons of food that we discard.
Due to their higher water content, fruit and vegetables are among the foods that contain the most water. (For instance, around 81% of an apple pack is water!)
However, meat products are the biggest water consumers because of how much water the animals drink and, more crucially, how much water is required to grow the grain that is used as their food. Meat production uses 8–10 times more water than grain production.
Most estimates set the water “in” that amount at 45 trillion gallons, or 24% of all water used for agriculture, if the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted globally each year is accurate. Also, keep in mind that 70% of the freshwater on the globe is used for agriculture.
3. Impact on Climate Change
Food that has been allowed to rot in our landfills emits methane as a result, a potent greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. When methane is emitted, it stays in the atmosphere for 12 years and absorbs the solar heat.
Food that is thrown away eventually ends up in landfills (which can themselves be a problem for the environment). That food starts to rot and releases methane gas as it starts to break down.
Of course, methane is a greenhouse gas that many scientists believe has a negative impact on the earth’s climate and temperature (i.e., global warming/climate change).
Methane makes up roughly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and is approximately 25 times more efficient than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Methane and other harmful gases have already been produced in large quantities throughout the production process. Now, food waste is making things worse.
20% of the emitted greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are a result of it. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the utilization of natural resources is astounding when we take them into account. A functional system for treating food waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11% globally.
According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, food waste accounts for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. The third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the United States and China, is food waste.
4. Land Degradation Our careless use of food products has a negative effect on the actual land. We wasteland in two different ways. both the land we use to grow food and the land we use to dispose of it.
11.5 million hectares of the world’s land are used for agriculture. There are two categories of land: “arable” (capable of supporting crop growth) and non-arable (that cannot grow crops). For the production of meat and dairy products, cattle are kept on 900 million hectares of non-arable land.
More arable land is being turned into pastures for animals to graze as the demand for meat rises. By doing this, we steadily deteriorate our natural land, making it impossible for anything natural to thrive there.
These figures demonstrate that we are overusing the land for food production, and if we don’t take care in the future, the yield will steadily decline as we slowly deteriorate the soil.
Not only are we destroying our stunning, untamed landscapes, but we are also endangering the biodiversity that exists in nature since turning arable land into pastures will result in the loss of animal habitat and may seriously upset the ecosystem’s food chains.
5. Damage to Biodiversity
The various species and organisms that make up an ecosystem are simply referred to as biodiversity.
Our biodiversity suffers as a result of agriculture in general. Where there is a rise in the need for the production of animals, mono-cropping and turning our wild lands into pastures and useful agricultural terrains are widespread practices.
The natural flora and animals that exist are destroyed by deforestation and the conversion of our natural lands into non-arable land, often to the point of extinction.
The population of marine life has also been shown to be declining, and our marine ecosystems have been severely impacted by the massive amounts of fish that are being taken.
According to reports, the average annual growth in the world’s fish consumption is beating the rate of population growth, yet at the same time, regions like Europe are rejecting 40–60% of their seafood because it does not match supermarket quality standards.
We are seriously disrupting marine ecosystems and food chains, endangering the availability of aquatic food, and overfishing and reducing fish supplies around the planet.
6. Oil is Wasted
Another “producing” aspect of the trash problem is this. What I mean is this:
- To grow, transport, store, and cook food, fossil fuels such as oil, diesel, and coal are needed. Consider the equipment needed to harvest the crops, the trucks that transport the food from the farm to the warehouse to the store, and the additional equipment needed to sort, clean, package, or otherwise prepare the food before it can be purchased.
- Millions of tons (in America) or billions (globally) of food are wasted annually, which also implies that all of the oil and gasoline used to produce that food was wasted. Many of these machines require enormous amounts of oil, diesel, and other fuels to operate.
- In addition, burning that fuel can contribute to the release of damaging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, along with the harmful gases already emitted from decaying food in landfills and any future deteriorating food that will still be wasted.
By not consuming the food we buy, we waste gasoline and oil both during the production process and throughout the decomposition process, which has a hidden but expensive effect on the environment.
Food that cannot be eaten by humans must be recycled. Instead of being thrown away as food waste, it can be fed to livestock during the food production process or even used as home compost in the homes of customers.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.