Food Waste: Why is it a problem?

There are many reasons why food waste is one of the most significant issues the planet is facing, including world hunger. Still, many people don't realise the massive impact of significant food waste on the environment.
March 29, 2022

In the United Kingdom, it's estimated that we throw away a whopping 7.3 million tonnes of food waste yearly, the equivalent weight of 583,000 double-decker buses. In fact, it’s estimated that as much as one-third of all the food produced for human consumption annually is wasted, costing the global economy close to $940 billion yearly.

There are many reasons why food waste is one of the most significant issues the planet is facing, including world hunger. Still, many people don't realise the massive impact of significant food waste on the environment and its role in climate change. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would emit more greenhouse gas emissions than every country except China and the US. 

So how does food waste impact the planet, and what can we do about it? 

What is food waste, and what causes it?

Firstly it's essential to understand precisely what food waste is.

Before we look at the causes of food waste and its implications on climate change, we must understand the correct definition of waste. Many confuse “food waste” with “food loss”, but there is a difference. 

Food loss occurs before it reaches the consumer. This might be due to extreme weather conditions such as drought or wildfires that destroy crops, or if bugs spoil harvested produce due to inadequate storage. Food loss can also occur during the processing stage or during transportation due to poor cooling equipment. 

Whereas food waste happens at the end of the supply chain, at consumer and retail levels. This is food bought by families but not eaten, wasted at restaurants due to overproduction or rejected by supermarkets because of its appearance. In fact, 20 tonnes of parsnips are wasted a week due to cosmetic specifications.

Causes of food waste include:

  1. Many consumers over-purchase and over-prepare too much food, especially around holidays, immediately leaving excess waste in the bin or spoiling at the back of a fridge. Large quantities of food are then disposed of due to it being past its sell-by-date or even thrown away while still edible. 
  1. Consumer behaviour is also a significant factor in global food waste. Until recently, shoppers have avoided undesirable produce. Wonky fruit and vegetables are often left on the shelf and then discarded despite having the same taste and nutritional benefits. 
  1. Developing countries also see large quantities of food waste due to managerial, technical and financial constraints. Technical difficulties in terms of storage and cooling in adverse weather conditions increase the rate at which food spoils. Food wastage is a rapidly growing problem for developing countries without the necessary packaging and infrastructure.
  1. Supermarkets and smaller grocery stores add to global food waste through over-merchandising and discounting. Discounts such as buy-one-get-one-free encourage consumers to purchase more than they might have planned, leading to wasting the excess. To promote the appearance of abundance, supermarkets often over-order merchandise to keep shelves appealing and attractive to customers. This leads to food spoiling and reaching its use-by date before purchase, ending in waste. 

How is food waste a problem?

Loss of biodiversity

Food production, in general, significantly impacts the environment. A report by Chatham House has found that our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss.

Farmers have increasingly invaded wild and fertile lands to maximise agricultural yields. Practices such as deforestation, slash and burn, and the conversion of wild areas into farmlands have destroyed natural habitats and hunting areas for many wildlife, including birds, fish and amphibians. 

This loss of land has led to a dramatic loss of biodiversity. In fact, the increase in demand for food, as well as land changes, is putting certain species at risk of extinction. 

Hundred of grey wolves are killed each year by livestock farmers. More than 50,000 endangered sea turtles are killed by shrimp trawling fisheries yearly. Genetically engineered crops and toxic herbicides have significantly reduced the numbers of monarch caterpillar populations, and plains bison have been driven to near extinction due to their natural habitats being turned into farmlands.

Sadly, as much of the food is never eaten, land, wildlife, and habitats are needlessly being destroyed. 

Without immediate action from farmers, retailers and consumers to reduce food waste, we will be unable to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. 

Wastage of fertile lands

The estimated land required to produce food thrown away by UK households is 19,000 square kilometres; that's an area 12 times the size of London!

Another way to look at this is that 30% of the world’s fertile land has been wasted. Forests have been cut down, habitats have been lost, and ecosystems have been destroyed to provide land for food that will not be eaten. 

Water use

While the amount of land required for food production is immense, that’s nothing compared to the amount of water needed. One loaf of bread requires roughly 1,100 litres of water to produce, and a pound of chicken takes as much as 2,300 litres of water to rear. 

So when we waste food, our blue water footprint, the amount of consumer surface and groundwater resources used, massively increases. 

It’s estimated that food waste is responsible for 250km3 of water waste, 34 times the volume of Lochness. 

Economic Factors: 

In the UK, food waste costs £19 billion annually, and £12.5 billion of that comes from our own households. That is the equivalent of more than 15 billion meals – enough to feed the entire UK population three meals a day for 11 weeks.

But it doesn’t just stop there. The intense use of natural resources along the supply chain to produce a surplus of food makes them increasingly scarce. This then drives up the price of resources, resulting in extra financial pressure on farmers and suppliers, which then falls to consumers.

Increased carbon footprint

Food waste has a massive detrimental impact on climate change. While it may be hard to visualise, 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to food waste.

As food in landfills rots and degrades, it goes through a process called anaerobic decomposition. This means it decomposes slowly with little to no oxygen. A staggering 3.8 kg of methane gets released for every 45kg of food waste, a gas 25 times more harmful to our planet due to its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. In fact, methane is responsible for more than 25% of the global warming we are experiencing today.

What's being done to combat waste?

Over recent years, food waste reduction has become a priority for local governments, supermarkets, farmers and international organisations. 

The UK government has pledged to halve food waste by 2030 and published the resources and waste strategy, explaining that food waste is “morally wrong, environmentally damaging, and costs money”. Their plan to reduce waste includes the following:

  • A £15 million pilot fund
  • Consultations on annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses and on legal powers to introduce mandatory targets for food waste prevention
  • A new food surplus and waste hierarchy
  • Appointing a new Food Surplus and Waste Champion
  • Supporting cross-sector collaboration through the Courtauld 2025 agreement

The first round of funding of £4 million was awarded in 2019 to four organisations: FareShare, Company Shop Group, The Felix Project and Food Works Sheffield. The grant was used to help the organisations overcome barriers to redistributing surplus food. The next round of funding would focus on improving infrastructure for companies to redistribute surplus food. 

How can I reduce food waste?

There are several different ways you can help reduce the issue of global food waste. By infusing just a few of these simple tips into your daily routine, you can help cut back on the amount of food and drink you waste.

  • Don’t buy more than you need. Keeping track of what’s in your fridge and freezer reduces food waste and saves you money. You can find planners and food trackers online or create your own to help you monitor your food. Some great resources include Tesco Meal Planner, Notion, Coop, or create your own using these templates from Canva

  • Planning is key! Plan your meals for the week ahead, including how you will eat the leftovers. Meal planners are available to buy in-store or online to print at home. These are great ways to help you keep an eye on the food and money you're wasting. 

  • Embrace leftovers! Take your leftovers to work or school for lunch the next day. Turn them into a new recipe. There are no rules when it comes to cooking and enjoying food. Get creative with the bits left over from your meal.

  • Fill your freezer. Parboil and freeze leftover veg, or spend a bit of time batch-cooking meals to freeze in individual portions. 

  • Don't judge a potato by its skin. Misshapen or wonky veg is normal. In fact, there are no differences in terms of nutritional benefit or taste when it comes to the shape or size of a vegetable. 

  • Share. Share. Share. It happens a lot, especially around celebrations and holidays. Overconsumption. If you’ve got an extra tin or two in the cupboard, or one too many boxes of biscuits or cereal, donate them to your local food bank instead of letting them go off at the back of your shelf. 

With every change we make as consumers, retailers or farmers, it's important to remember that our challenge should not be how to grow more food, but how to feed more people while wasting less of what we already produce.

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