Space & Innovation

Why Does a Third of the World's Food Go Uneaten?

The massive waste not only causes hunger, but helps drives climate change too.

At the recent global climate summit in Paris, the big headline was passage of an agreement that, for the first time, commits nearly every nation in the world to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Less noticed, but also important, was officials' effort to get nations to tackle another, lesser-known driver of climate change that also helps perpetuate hunger: the massive amount of food across the planet that goes to waste.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, an astonishing 1.3 billion tons of food -- about a third of the global supply of nutrition -- goes uneaten each year. That's enough to feed 870 million people, on a planet where many still struggle to find enough to eat for themselves and their families.

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Worse yet, that waste also puts the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, due to the amount of energy that it takes to grow, process and transport wasted food, as well as the effects of the methane -- a potent greenhouse gas --that's given off when it rots.

"When food is thrown away, it means that the water, the energy, the land used to produce it is also thrown away," Barbara Ekwall, a Washington-based senior liaison officer for FAO, explained in an email. "If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the biggest user of irrigation water, the second largest country on the globe, and the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases."

A lot of that waste is happening in affluent nations such as the United States, where we squander as much as 40 percent of the food that's produced for our use each year, according to a 2013 NRDC report. We end up discarding 52 percent of our fruit and vegetable supply, 50 percent of our seafood, 38 percent of grain products, and 22 percent of our meat.

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NRDC staff scientist Dana Gunders says that a lot of the U.S. supply is tossed out because distributors and supermarkets reject edible fruit and vegetables with slight flaws for cosmetic reasons, or because fluctuations in wholesale prices make crops harder to sell.

But once food gets to consumers, it often goes bad in their refrigerators, in part because of bargain-loving Americans' liking for buying their groceries in bulk from sprawling big-box stores. And restaurants feel compelled to serve gigantic portions, much of which end up in the trash.

Affluent European countries waste slightly less food than Americans. "They tend to they serve smaller portions, and historically go shopping more often and have smaller refrigerators in their homes," Gunders explains. But even so, they also discard a lot of food because it doesn't meet their aesthetic standards.

In poorer, less-developed parts of the world, only about a tenth as much food per person is wasted as in the United States and Europe. But even so, vast quantities go to waste. In Africa, for example, the amount of food that goes uneaten each year could fill the needs of 300 million people, according to FAO.

Food that goes to waste in those countries, however, is more likely to be lost in the supply chain on the way to market. "You can picture a truck of tomatoes or grain in India, trying to make it down a bumpy road," Gunders said.

"Maybe the truck gets a flat tire, or else food spoils because the truck isn't refrigerated. In the U.S., we're very good at getting products to market, but once we get it, we waste it in a variety of ways. In developing countries, they may not have the technology or the infrastructure to get the product to the people who want it."

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Additionally, populations that are shifting toward fast-growing mega-cities in developing countries may exacerbate the problem.

"Urbanization and population mobility -- and the mobility of food products -- change the way markets operate," Ekwall explained in an email. "The food value chain tends to be longer and involve a greater number of actors. Urbanization and a growing middle class also implies changed eating habits, (such as consuming) more rich in protein, more imported food. Urbanization can lead to more food loss and waste because of all these factors."

To confront the dilemma, international officials are aiming to cut their food wastefulness in half by 2030. As part of that effort, FAO and other organizations have developed a system to help countries track how much food they are squandering, and trade information on how to prevent losses.

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In the United States and Europe, educating consumers about the harm caused by food waste could make a significant dent in the problem, experts say. In developing countries, though, it may require investing in better technology for handling food and upgrading the transportation systems that get it to the public.

Besides the need to control climate change, it's crucial to cut down food waste because population growth is going to put increasing pressure upon food production, according to Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future.

"We're currently in a situation where we're producing enough food on the planet to feed everyone, but 800 million people are hungry because of problems in the way the supply is distributed," she said. "But by 2050, the UN is estimating that we're going to need 60 percent more food to keep up with population growth. That doesn't give us anything to spare."

Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.