Food waste is destroying our environment

Ecologically, the current food system is a disaster. We must fix it through legislation, incentives and public education.
Lennon Mudzengerere

Deforestation, monoculture farming and pesticides are all major environmental problems resulting from food production.

What often gets missed, however, is how much food is wasted – and how devastating this is for the environment.

Food waste is a serious threat to people and the planet. We must take a stance and ensure that we reduce food waste and improve food waste management.

What food waste means for emissions

Food is an obvious place to start for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, between eight and ten per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that was not consumed. As the report’s authors put it, “if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Between eight and ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste. Image: Unsplash.

To make matters worse, food waste is also a major contributor to methane gas emissions. The campaign group Clean Up Australia has estimated that 92% of all household waste goes to landfills. Due to the organic nature of most of the food, the end product is often the emission of methane.

Methane is 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide and this essentially means it causes all the above-listed problems but at a larger scale than carbon dioxide.

Methane also has a detrimental effect on air quality and that has a domino effect on human health.

Turning to green solutions for our food systems is a prerequisite for any campaign aimed at making the environment better now and in the future.

How food waste pollutes our water

Apart from the gas emissions, the food waste that the earth is subjected to also has to bear with the “ugly sites” of landfills.

Landfills can contaminate water sources through leachate which comes from food waste disintegrating. Image: Pexels.

One of the biggest dangers is landfill leachate. This is essentially when food waste disintegrates into a liquid with toxic heavy metals, ammonia nitrogen compounds, and other dissolved and suspended contaminants that contaminate water. Drinking water contaminated with leachate often leads to bleeding stomach disorders, blood disorders, congenital disabilities and even cancer. Food waste contributes immensely to the total 1,056,716 cubic metres of leachate produced annually in the UK.

Then there’s the issue of all of the water the food system wastes. A third of all irrigation water is used to water food that will essentially be wasted. We in the UK are throwing away 9.5 million tonnes of food annually means we’re therefore wasting tonnes of natural resources and degrading the environment in one fell swoop.

This is before we consider the obvious social harms of food waste. Recent research conducted by the food bank network the Trussell Trust found that 11.3 million UK citizens were food-insecure because of a lack of money – a scourge in a country as rich as ours. Cutting food waste is thus as much about helping people as it is about protecting the planet.

Fixing the issue

The main deterrent to solving the food waste crisis has been the lack of legislation. The UK government has set a food waste reduction target of 50% by 2030. This is a good start, but we must hold the government accountable and ensure that they put in place measures for the target to be achieved.

The UK government has set a food waste reduction target of 50% by 2030. Image: Unsplash.

Incentivising businesses that donate food to charities rather than wasting it could go a long way in reducing food waste. These have proven to be a strong encouragement for businesses to donate food in other countries like Germany.

Penalising businesses that contribute to food waste will be equally important. In 2016, France introduced a law that punishes supermarkets that throw out food that could still be consumed.  According to the French Federation of Food Banks, 46,000 tons of food is rescued every year as a result. This would go a long way in discouraging food businesses from contributing towards food waste here in the UK.

A study conducted in 2020 by Nils-Gerrit Wunsch a renowned researcher, highlighted that 68% of people in the UK believe that they do not waste food but a study by Wrap highlighted that 70% of all food waste in the UK is from households.

The government and civic organisations should launch nationwide campaigns to educate and highlight the problems that come as a result of food waste. We should also include food literacy programs in school curriculums to ensure that we build a culture of food preservation from a young age. Slovenia, Japan, Czechia, Iceland, Norway and Sweden all have food literacy-inclined learning areas in their education curricula and their model can be used to implement the same solution in the UK but emphasising how food waste impacts the environment.

We should include food literacy programs in school curricula. Image: Pexels.

There are several food rescue organisations in the UK which include Fare Share and Food Rescue Hub that are doing a stellar job in dealing with food waste and who we should be supporting more.  

The lack of public awareness around “best by” dates is also a problem when it comes to food waste. According to a recent study conducted by scientists at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, most consumers do not understand the actual meaning of the label and they tend to throw away food once it passes the “best by” date and in most cases, the food would still be consumable. The government should update and enforce food labelling laws and cement the use of “best by” and “use by” dates.

It is high time that we take a stance on food waste. The best way to do this is to start in our homes and take it out into the world. The planet is counting on us to save it, we must do our part.

Lennon Mudzengerere is a food processing technician working to aid food sustainability and drive eco-friendly food preparation methods across Africa.

Feature image: Unsplash.

Lennon Mudzengerere

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