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Americans Throw Out 40 Percent of their Food, Which is Terrible for the Climate

Katie Valentine
Think Progress / News Analysis
Published: Thursday 6 June 2013
Throwing away food contributes directly to climate change.
Article image

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency announced their plan to tackle food waste in America, a problem that has grown by 50 percent since the 1970s. Today, as much as 40 percent of food produced in America is thrown away, amounting to 1,400 calories per person per day, $400 per person per year, and notably, 31 million tons of food added to landfills each year.

The USDA’s and EPA’s solution is a program called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, which invites food producers, retailers, consumers, nonprofits and government agencies to sign up and “list the activities they will undertake to help reduce, recover, or recycle food waste in the United States.” So far, General Mills, Unilever, and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance are among the program’s first participants.

As part of the program, the USDA is also addressing food waste in schools, updating nation-wide food loss estimates from retailers, pilot-testing a meat-composting program, and working to make it easier for companies to donate misbranded meat and poultry and imported produce that doesn’t meet the country’s strict quality standards instead of throwing it away. The agency will also be educating consumers about food waste and correct ways to store food — a lack of understanding that the Natural Resources Defense Council has cited as one of the major causes of food waste in America.

Throwing away food contributes directly to climate change — as EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe noted in a press release about the program, decomposing food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times as effective at trapping atmospheric heat than carbon. According to the EPA, 17 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from landfills. But a high rate of wasted food also means a high rate of the energy that goes into food production — the water, fuel and farmland needed to grow crops and produce meat — is also wasted. It’s been estimated that 2 percent of all U.S. energy goes into food that American consumers and retailers are wasting.

The problem of food waste isn’t limited to the U.S., and as food insecurity grows around the world, the task of finding ways of solving it becomes more urgent. Worldwide, it’s estimated estimated that one-third to a half of all food is wasted — despite estimates that 870 million people are undernourished. Global populations are projected to reach up to 10.5 billion by 2050, putting strain on the world’s food system. And the effects of climate change — extreme weather, droughts, floods and pest outbreaks — could put 20 percent more people worldwide at risk of hunger by 2050, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program.

Many countries have already seen the effects climate change can have on food supplies: last year’s record-breaking drought decimated winter and summer wheat crops in the U.S. and Russia, and U.S. soybeans and corn were hit just as hard. In 2012, worldwide food consumption surpassed production for the sixth time in 11 years, and low crop yields caused food prices to spike.

Food Waste



ABOUT Katie Valentine

Katie Valentine is a Special Assistant for ThinkProgress. Previously, she interned with American Progress in the Energy department, doing research on international climate policy and contributing to Climate Progress. Katie graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2012 with a bachelor of arts in journalism and a minor in ecology. While in school, she wrote for UGA’s student newspaper, The Red & Black, and was a contributing editor for UGAzine. She also interned at Creative Loafing, Points North, and in UGA’s Office of Sustainability.

I'm 85 years old and as a kid

I'm 85 years old and as a kid during the great depression I was made to sit at the table until my plate was bare of any food. My mother finally wised up and would make a separate dish of potato salad for me without onions which I hated. Years later I found out she detested oysters which the rest of the family loved.

Interesting discussion. But

Interesting discussion. But realistically, how in the world can we feed a projected population of 10.5 billion people, by the year 2050, when as estimated 870 million people are currently undernourished? The world's topsoil is being destroyed, while our oceans are ravished for the remaining fish.

Provide every woman in the world with the means to control her own reproduction and destiny, with family planning NOW. Prevent women from dying in childbirth, watching their living kids die of malnutrition, and empower women. It is too many people that are polluting, poisoning, changing the climate, creating an uncaring, congested, unmanageable global disaster.

Earth's destruction is becoming increasingly inevitable.

Zero waste is possible, it

Zero waste is possible, it just takes everyone getting into the mindset. In AA, MI, Food Gatherers (a charity) collects discarded food from stores and restaurants and farmers and even citizens in our area, then they give it to Salvation Army to put in Food Pantries where low income people can come and shop for free. A low income friend of mine discovered that there was edible discarded food going from the Salvation Army pantries to the landfill every week, so he asked permission to take what they were going to landfill every week, and he sorts through it and distributes the edible stuff to a network of family and friends, gets spoiling stuff to farmers for livestock feed or composts it himself, all without owning a car himself. Landfills could be miniscule and not need to flare off methane if people would just recycle or reuse almost every item they contemplate discarding.

Did you also know that Stores

Did you also know that Stores increased the sizes of their PLATES ! So if we're really talking about eating healthy, more 'organic' vegetables (raw & lightly cooked), then remember back when the decorative band around the plate wasn't for where the Food should go, it was to enhance the look of the food. I distinctly remember wallet sized portions of meat when I was young in a famil of six.
.
So what else grew in size ? the Refrig ? the Stoves ? after all , we want to keep up with the Jones & buy more Stuff. Common sense should always be in the picture when buying over or under the counter. Because it all ADDs up somewhere. What goes up, must come down. What goes in, must come out. What get's thrown out, ends up somewhere.
.
There's another wise saying -- never go to the store -- hungry (for those who have the money to spend/waste). A 5 for 1 $ale is not a sale, when it's still crap.
Know what you're eating. Plant a vertical garden, a raised bed garden, whatever helps you appreciate nature. And please, do not use ANY Pesticides. As AuntieG said, we need to save the BEE's. Start Locally!

Its more than the

Its more than the refrigerator and stove that grew in size with the obesity epidemic. It is now illegal to have a shower with less than 30"x30" clear floor area (which means no 30"x30" precast shower pans available anymore), and everything seems to be designed around accommodating obese people, including cars - tiny cars aren't made in the US anymore, you have to go overseas. All of this costs a lot of money, and enables fat people to just get fatter in great comfort. We need to create our typical environments to encourage weight loss, not inhibit it.

I don't know where this poll

I don't know where this poll was taken but it did not include anyone in my area. The people in my area are too poor to be throwing a crumb to a starving mouse. Our community has a commercial food rescue where the unwanted food gets picked up and brought to a community meal center. Calls go out for the hungry to come and eat.

Our community gardens beg for food scraps to compost. Vets have put out recipes for healthy dog and cat foods made from "extra" foods. There is no excuse for this much waste. I am not so sure about unapproved imports. I would want to know how it failed, how it was grown and where it came from.

Is the sky really falling? I

Is the sky really falling? I see no basic helpful quantitative breakdown in this article, to answer basic questions on how much of what sorts of food is actually wasted in private homes, versus from oversize restaurant portions, versus from mislabeled imports that - according to this article - somehow just automatically get tossed. Does waste at home include food scraps that indeed do get usefully composted?

If instead of being tossed into indiscriminate landfills, food waste were composted or at least tossed into special dumps, the resulting methane (CH4) would be concentrated enough to burn for energy and would yield only CO2 emissions - only a fraction as bad for climate as are CH4 emissions.

But the big waste comes from using human-edible plants instead to feed meat-producing cattle and fowl and pigs. Of you really want to do something about the waste and methane problems, start by joining me - go vegan!

One simple way for cafeterias

One simple way for cafeterias to reduce wasted food is: eliminate trays. It works wherever it's tried. People don't load up if they know they can go back for seconds....but when it comes time for more food than they can easily carry in two hands, they somehow just don't bother going to get it and/or they only get what they will eat.

When children are dying of

When children are dying of starvation the world round, and there's more than enough to go around the table a time or two, it's a sin, a moral crime to waste a crumb.

TRUST ME; IF WE'RE TALKING

TRUST ME; IF WE'RE TALKING STRICTLY FROM OUR PLATES, WE NEVER THROW IT OUT! IF, THERE'S NOTHING IN IT THAT WOULD HURT THE ANIMALS, IT GOES RIGHT IN TO THEIR LITTLE BELLIES. IF IT'S LEFT IN THE POT, IT GOES RIGHT INTO THE FREEZER FOR LATER, OR, IN THE FRIDGE FOR MANANA'S LUNCH, ETC. DITTO ON BOZO'S "PARENTS OF THE DEPRESSION" STATEMENT - AND . . . GREW UP ON A FARM, LIVING ON SSI, ETC., ETC. AND IT'S NOT JUST TERRIBLE FOR THE CLIMATE. IT'S BAD FOR ONE'S BUDGET, AND BAD, IN GENERAL, FOR ONE'S CHILDREN TO BE TAUGHT SUCH WASTEFULNESS.

AuntieG, please stop

AuntieG, please stop shouting. Turn off your Caps Lock key.

Humans are some of the most

Humans are some of the most wasteful beings on the planet. If the food chain were to suffer a severance in its chain, humans would be wailing, hand wringing and nashing their teeth over the lack of food available to their distended gullets and belly's. Oh how horrible for poor human beings with all of that wasted food no longer available for consumption, when it was originally and callously disregarded and discarded in the first place.

Member of a clean plate family and "save and consume the leftovers." Take what you can consume in one sitting...as you can always go back for seconds, thirds, fourths...easy to do and simple to figure out.

and yet all we hear is

and yet all we hear is supersize it.....should I say kids/teenagers ?? Michael Bloomberg is in a fit about oversize soda's... Kids are fat / as fat as governor Christie - and getting fatter. They do not eat healthy meals . Nutritional values???
Kids can't even boil water today - or fry an egg.....but they know how to supersize everything
. . . w a s t e .....

Not sure what your point is

Not sure what your point is about "Michael Bloomberg is in a fit about oversize sodas". Do you think he shouldn't be? It sounds like you believe it's non e of his business.

In fact, from a public health standpoint, supersized anything is a waste of food and too many calories.

When I was young, leftover

When I was young, leftover food would feed the hogs and the dogs and these were very healthy. Hogs and dogs today are fed processed food for uniformity, and vets warn us against feeding them table scraps.

Friend's dogs eat dry dog food while we throw away meat scraps and steak bones as they salivate over the smell. In fact, when some dogs are fed table scraps, their systems have been so weakened by processed food that they get diarrhea.

One would think that uniformity freaks are either stupid, insane or both, but the same could be said about our corporate dependent world. One whose fears drive this insanity by wanting to turn us all into compliant robots.

Frigate, if we feed the

Frigate, if we feed the leftovers to the dogs, then the dogs fart and produce methane gas , the methane will cause the climate to change and then the food will stop growing and people and dogs will starve. That doesn't seem like a good idea.

Frigate, if we feed the

Frigate, if we feed the leftovers to the dogs, then the dogs fart and produce methane gas , the methane will cause the climate to change and then the food will stop growing and people and dogs will starve. That doesn't seem like a good idea.

MISTER B, MISTER B!!! OURS

MISTER B, MISTER B!!! OURS DON'T CREATE AS MUCH METHANE AS WE HUMANS DO. WE FACE PLENTY MORE SERIOUS CHALLENGES TO OUR FOOD SUPPLY THAN A LITTLE "DOGGIE WIND." HAVE YOU LISTENED TO CONGRESS LATELY??? LET'S TALK STINK, HUH?

SAVE THE BEES!!!

Incredible. Here, we never

Incredible. Here, we never leave anything on our plate. Our parents lived through the great depression.

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