The mass quantities of food Americans waste every year has staggering environmental consequences, according to a study published Wednesday.
“Our data suggest that the average person in the United States wastes about a pound of food per day,” said the University of Vermont’s Meredith Niles, one of the study’s authors, along with researchers at the Department of Agriculture and the University of New Hampshire.
That totals about 25 percent of all food, by weight, available for consumption in the United States — or about 30 percent of all available calories, the researchers estimate — a figure that’s larger than previous attempts to measure food waste.
The environmental costs of that wasted food are tremendous: 30 million acres of cropland (about the land area of Pennsylvania), 4.2 trillion gallons of water and nearly 2 billion pounds of fertilizer. Fertilizer contains compounds that can run off farm fields and compromise water quality.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, did not calculate the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. But prior research has suggested wasted food, like all food production, also contributes to the warming of the planet, because agriculture is a key source of the fast-warming gases methane and nitrous oxide.
The report is the latest evidence that if the world is to manage a growing population and the massive changes that population is making to the global climate, it will have to significantly reshape its food system to use fewer resources to feed more people — efficiency that probably would require wasting far less food.
The new research is based on a massive survey of Americans’ eating habits, cross-referenced with other federal data sets and amplified by modeling tools, so as to determine how much food we waste and how much environmental input that translates into.
The amount of total food wasted is undoubtedly larger than the researchers calculated, as the study focused only on waste by consumers at home or when eating out. Waste within the agricultural system before food reaches a home or restaurant was not included, nor was food wasted at supermarkets.
“What we’re reporting is about 25 percent of the food that’s available for consumption gets wasted,” said the Agriculture Department’s Zach Conrad, the study’s lead author. “And there are some other data sets that are showing, that across the entire food system, it’s about 30 to 40 percent.”
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Originally written by Chris Mooney