No matter what holiday you celebrate in December, you know the thrill of piling your plate with festive fare, only to discover, groaningly, that you’ve bitten off way more than you can chew. So you toss your scraps without a second thought – not realizing that you’ve just contributed to the roughly 1.3 billion tons of food that goes to waste each year, costing producers $750 billion, according to the United Nations. And that’s to say nothing of the human and environmental costs.
Food Waste by the Numbers
Amount of food wasted per year in tons
Annual economic cost of food waste
People who could be fed by food that’s wasted
Discarded dinner scraps account for a hefty share of food waste, but there are other sources too. Some food spoils before farmers can harvest it, while other food goes bad en route from farm to store. In many cases, food rots on supermarket shelves.
All that uneaten food adds up to a whopping one-third of the global food supply – enough to feed two billion people. In wealthy countries, consumers waste as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces annually. For comparison, the average consumer in Europe and North America throws away up to 254 pounds of food a year, while his or her counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or Southeast Asia waste only 24 pounds at most.
Food Waste by Region
Amount of food the average consumer in Europe and North America wastes per year
Amount of food the average consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or Southeast Asia wastes per year
The environmental costs are no less staggering, according to a report the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization released in September. Food waste adds an estimated 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year. If you could gather all that food and turn it into a country, it would be the third highest-emitting country in the world, after China and the U.S.
Although discarded scraps don’t account for the largest portion of food waste, they leave the biggest carbon footprint, since food at this stage of the supply chain has already accumulated carbon emissions from production, harvest, storage, processing and distribution.
Some types of food waste emit more carbon than others. Fruit has the smallest carbon footprint, while meat has the largest. That’s because raising and slaughtering livestock, and then processing, transporting and storing its meat requires huge amounts of energy.
Amount of greenhouse gases in gigatons that food waste adds to the atmosphere each year
Beyond boosting carbon emissions, wasting food also wastes natural resources. Each year, 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used to produce food that ultimately goes uneaten. That food also guzzles a volume of water that’s 60 percent as large as California’s Lake Tahoe.
The U.N. has offered some tips to reduce waste, such as selling farm produce directly to customers and strengthening the food supply chain after the harvesting stage in poor countries, where food is often lost during harvesting and storage.
But personal habits need to change, too. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School found that 90 percent of Americans throw away perfectly fine food based on the “sell by” date because they think it indicates when the food will spoil. Rather, the “sell by” date is when the item is at peak quality. But it can still be eaten safetly for a while afterward. The label basically lets retailers know when to pull the item from the shelves.
Percentage of Americans who needlessly discard food based on the “sell by” date
The report called for the government to mandate a clear set of labels and for consumers to rely on their senses, tossing anything that looks or smells rotten. (That’s right — no more skipping the sniff test.) Unspoiled.org also suggests buying funny-looking produce and following the “first in, first out” rule, or moving older products to the front of the fridge, so you’re more likely to eat them before they go bad.
Percentage of the world’s arable land used to produce food that goes uneaten
Much as we hate to continue the Grinch act, the global population is expected to hit 8 billion in 2020. How long can the planet sustain us when food waste continues to pile up? Although policy changes will help, so will staying mindful of our food consumption habits. The season of excess is the perfect time to start.
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article did not adequately credit a source, WebMD.
Why you should care
Because the scraps you toss out land on a very large pile of wasted food – enough to feed 2 billion people.