Economics and the environment are inextricably connected. Their dependence on one another became more apparent this past Wednesday when the New Climate Economy and WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan) released an annual report on global food waste trends.
The report was created to address the vast potential in waste reduction. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated one-third to half of all food produced is wasted. This amounts to two billion tons of food, or $750 billion a year. The yearly cost of food waste rivals the total value of two of the world’s largest companies, Google ($395 billion) and Exxon Mobile ($392 billion). Clearly, reducing food waste is an environmental and economic priority.
Food is lost through all levels of the supply chain. The report recommends taking steps like improved packaging and refrigeration to offset the percent of food lost. Spoiled food ends up as landfill waste and contributes an estimated 7 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. This figure does not include the emissions necessary to initially produce the food: fossil fuels needed for agricultural machinery, the expense of chemical fertilizers, processing, packaging and transportation thousands of miles from farm to table. The byproducts of industrial agriculture, portrayed as an “efficient” model, amount to a waste of energy and resources.
Food waste is particularly high in the United States because we have the luxury to waste so much. Every home is installed with a refrigerator where fresh food from the supermarket can sit and rot. In comparison, many European consumers buy fresh produce each day from farmers markets because of the energy intensity used by refrigerators. European farms are closer to consumers, shortening the supply chain and diminishing the gaps for food to spoil.
Despite global pitfalls, Binghamton University is already managing a progressive position on food waste. The Food Recovery Network, established in every dining hall, and the composting program, established in 2007, have significantly reduced Sodexo’s contribution to food waste. The Food Recovery Network takes excess prepared meals and donates them to Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW), a local food pantry. This means that Broome County’s underprivileged populations are still fed.
The composting program collects food scraps from the dining halls and recycles them into a rich form of organic fertilizer for farms. Students can actually see food waste returning back to the land at BU Acres, the farm on Bunn Hill Road.
The global crisis with food waste reveals the food industry’s inefficiencies. This is an opportunity to gain a perspective and create a sustainable future. In nature, there is no waste. All deceased organic matter falls back into the system as fertility for forthcoming generations. Compost has been heralded as the nutrition for healthy, organic farms.
Two billion tons of food waste could become two billion tons of compost for next year’s local, organic farms. Solutions to our biggest environmental issues are closer than we think.