Imagine going to the store, returning home with three full bags of groceries.
You pause before entering your house and toss one of the bags into a garbage can, which is then carted away to a landfill.
What a waste of time. That is precisely what we are doing today as a group.
Around the world, 30 to 40% of food destined for human consumption is wasted.
The extent of food loss fills many of us with tremendous grief, given that more than 800 million people go hungry every day.
By 2050, the globe will need to produce 53 million additional metric tonnes of food per year if population growth and economic development continue at their current rates.
Over the next 30 years, another 442 million hectares of forests and grassland—an area larger than India—would have to be converted to cropland.
Over the next 30 years, the escalation would release the equivalent of an additional 80 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, roughly 15 times the emissions of the whole US economy in 2019.
Food waste already accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
However, there is another option. Our team at Project Drawdown, a worldwide research, and communications organization,
just finished an in-depth analysis of existing technologies and practices that can drastically cut greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere while ushering in a more regenerative society and economy.
Among the 76 goals, we looked at, reducing food waste is one of the top five ways to achieve them.
Without clearing, planting, or grazing more land than is currently used, simple changes in how food is produced and consumed might help feed the entire globe a healthy, nutrient-rich diet through 2050 and beyond.
By decreasing waste and improving food production methods, we can minimize deforestation while also saving a tremendous amount of energy, water, fertilizer, labor, and other resources.
From farm to table, there are opportunities to cut waste at every step of the supply chain.
Crops are harvested, livestock is raised, and these goods are processed into rice, vegetable oil, potato chips, neatly cut carrots, cheese, and New York strip steaks.
The majority of these things are packaged in gas-guzzling trucks, trains, and planes, and sent in cardboard boxes, plastic bags and bottles, tin cans, and glass jars manufactured from extracted resources in industrial facilities.
Food is kept in energy-hungry refrigerators and freezers that employ hydrofluorocarbons—potent greenhouse gases,
until it is purchased by customers, whose eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, especially in wealthier communities.
Restaurants and residences in high-income countries utilize energy-intensive stoves and ovens,
whereas billions of people in developing countries burn biomass in noxious cookstoves that emit polluting, harmful smoke, and black carbon.
After all of these waste-producing operations, too much food that reaches a consumer’s table is thrown in the trash, which is then taken to landfills by fossil-fueled vehicles,
where it decomposes and generates methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
Throwing out that leftover lasagna emits significantly more greenhouse gases than a decaying tomato that never leaves the field.
We can do better.
FOODPRINTS THAT ARE SMALLER
We used worldwide data from the Food and Agriculture Organization and a variety of other sources to create a thorough model of the whole food production and consumption chain at Project Drawdown.
Based on actual developments over the past several decades, the model took into account rising population estimates,
as well as increased consumption and meat consumption per person, particularly in developing countries.
Healthy diets and more regenerative agricultural production, according to our calculations, result in a reduced “foodprint”—less waste, fewer emissions, and a cleaner environment.
If half of the world’s population consumes a healthy 2,300 calories per day, based on a plant-rich diet,
and puts in place previously proven waste-cutting measures throughout the supply chain, food losses may drop from 40% to 20%, a huge saving.
Food waste may be reduced to 10% if we were even more ambitious in adopting the same principles.
These significant savings would be the result of changes in basic routines.
In the industrialized world, eating a 2,300-calorie diet daily instead of the more common 3,000-calorie diet reduces food waste.
In the developing world, caloric and protein intake must generally increase to attain nutritional levels, which may result in an increase in the waste throughout the system.
Overall, 166 million metric tonnes of food waste may be saved over the next 30 years if everyone on the earth adopted healthy consumption habits and a plant-rich (not necessarily vegetarian) diet.
Feedback would be distributed up and down the supply chain to boost crop yield while lowering animal production.
Reducing waste by changing the way food is produced and consumed can also benefit the environment significantly.
Grains, vegetables, fish, meat, and dairy all have quite diverse environmental footprints.
One kilogram of tomatoes produces roughly 0.35 kilogram of carbon dioxide emissions when grown and harvested.
The average quantity of emissions produced by producing the same amount of beef is 36 kg.
Greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based commodities are 10 to 50 times lower than those from most animal-based products when the complete supply chain is considered.
Monocropping, excessive tillage, and the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have all been expanded by industrial agriculture.
These methods erode soil and release a large number of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Pests and diseases can still kill staples in the field, and they can rot in storage.
Further emissions are produced by livestock eating grasses and feed.
Pest and weed control techniques used in agroecology, such as planting various crops together and using better crop rotation, can reduce pests and weeds, lowering losses.
Improved livestock-management strategies, such as silvopasture, which incorporates trees into forage land,
can improve the quality and quantity of animal-based products: more food from fewer hooves on the field, resulting in fewer resources spent and losses.
Because regenerative farming practices use compost and manure instead of artificial fertilizers to increase yields by 5 to 35 percent, restore soils, and pull more carbon from the air,
any food that does not make it to market can be recycled as natural fertilizer or converted into biogas for farm energy by anaerobic digestors.
More farms should adopt such approaches.
Restaurants around the country are assisting them through an intriguing company called Zero Foodprint,
which takes a few pennies extra to diners’ bills to aid regenerative farms in the making and was founded by chef Anthony Myint.
THE THIRD BAG IS SAVED
The majority of food in low-income nations is lost before it reaches the market.
Waste can be reduced by improving education and professional training for farmers and producers, as well as using innovative technologies.
The United Nations Development Program and the Global Environment Facility, for example, have constructed solar-powered refrigeration units in the India’s state of Jharkhand, allowing farmers who grow vegetables, fruits, and other perishables to preserve their products without sacrificing quality.
In Africa, the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers has increased training to help local farmers grow more food in drought-tolerant crops and no-till farming to conserve fading land under climate change circumstances.
The majority of waste is generated at the end of the supply chain, in marketplaces and households, in high- and middle-income nations.
Consumers have a lot of power when it comes to preventing waste. Consider what we’re buying and how much we’re spending as a first step.
This starts with deliberate decisions to buy what we expect to eat and consume what we buy.
Buying proper quantities of food instead of overstocking on perishables and other products lowers waste.
If there is too much food for the dinner table, properly keeping leftovers will prevent them from spoiling, or they can be shared with neighbors, strengthening community bonds.
Cultural transformations on a larger scale are also required.
The French supermarket giant Intermarché began the “inglorious fruits and veggies” campaign in 2014 intending to reduce waste by shifting cultural attitudes toward “imperfect” items.
Markets typically purchase only fruits and vegetables that conform to a culturally idealized perception of shape and color.
Up to 40% of edible fruits and vegetables are wasted before they leave the farm gate due to imperfect production that does not meet these deceptive features.
Instead, Intermarché sells these fruits and vegetables in specific aisles and promotes them through a nationwide marketing effort.
Other merchants are taking it a step further: WeFood, a Danish supermarket, has a full shelf of products that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
412 Food Rescue, established in Pittsburgh, offers nutritious food to communities in need for free that was headed for landfills due to flaws, limited freshness (such as day-old bread), and incorrect labeling.
Wholesalers, merchants, and restaurants all have a role to play in reducing garbage piles.
They can demand that suppliers utilize more food from regenerative farms in their communities.
Having clear, uniform “sell-by/use-by” labels on food goods helps store managers know when to mark down things and consumers know when and when not to throw food away.
Restaurants can offer varying portion sizes and fewer menu items, as well as encourage customers to take leftovers home with them.
Governments and businesses that provide meal services to employees can also participate.
Imagine if the kitchen managers elected to serve plant-rich meals produced from perfectly imperfect produce bought from regenerative vendors to the more than two million individuals who frequent federal government cafeterias in the United States.
In its cafeterias today, Google is already doing more of this.
Regardless of how careful we are, some food will ultimately be lost in the supply chain.
Because they create soil or generate electricity, anaerobic digesters and composting are superior alternatives to depositing food in landfills.
Eight states now have legislation mandating organic waste to be diverted from landfills to reduce harmful methane emissions.
According to the most recent Project Drawdown estimate, applying these solutions globally may cut greenhouse gas emissions by 14 billion metric tonnes over the next 30 years.
True magic happens when several different solutions are implemented simultaneously and maintained over time.
Farmers, executives, grocers, chefs, and customers can avert enough food loss to feed the globe through 2050 without converting any more land if they make the right decisions.
That means that by working together, we can end hunger and promote a healthier global population.
There would also be enough acreage to cultivate plants for organic products like bioplastics, insulation, and biofuels.
It will take time to restructure the food system and change eating patterns.
We shouldn’t expect to become flawless, regeneratively conscious, plant-rich connoisseurs who are meticulous about their purchases and garbage right away.
Our most basic responsibility is to be conscious of the decisions we make and to endeavor to be “solutions” as much as possible.
We can save that third bag of groceries if we work together.