Food waste and climate change are surprisingly closely linked. Not only do foods in landfills produce a variety of gases that are detrimental to the climate, but food waste is also a waste of the energy it took to grow and cultivate that food. Still, small changes go a long way in reducing your environmental impact. 

With climate change such a pressing issue in modern times, humanity must look for solutions before it’s too late. The unfortunate reality is that human behaviour is a major factor of climate change, and we may be able to mitigate the climate crisis by altering our daily habits. 

Small changes go a long way in terms of reducing your environmental impact, and your home is an ideal starting point. While simple changes such as driving less and swapping out energy-draining lighting for efficient LEDs can help bring us closer to a more sustainable future, we need to pay close attention to our food consumption and waste as well. By composting your leftovers and discarded food scraps, you help keep organic waste out of landfills while also reducing harmful pollutants that compromise the health of the human population and the planet as a whole.

Food waste and climate change are closely linked where every level of production, from farmers’ fields to our dinner tables, can have an impact on our climate. Common types of food waste include bones, eggshells, fruit and vegetable peelings, and uneaten leftovers. Not only does the organic waste in landfills produce a variety of noxious gases including methane, a greenhouse gas that has a 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, but wasted food also equates to wasted energy, gas emissions and lost time during the growing and cultivation processes. 

Let’s take a look at the complex relationship between food waste and climate change, and explore the small ways that we can cut down on food waste as individuals, and on a global scale.

Food Waste: A Global Issue

The environmental impact of food waste takes its toll everywhere – no matter where you live, but the United States is one of the world’s biggest culprits. As recently as 2016, wasted food took up more space in American landfills than other forms of discarded waste. On an annual basis, discarded produce alone costs a family of four almost USD$1,600, and about 50% of all fruits and vegetables ultimately end up in landfills, uneaten.

Yet food waste patterns can vary considerably by country, and some nations boast more comprehensive waste-management policies than others, according to the non-profit organisation Move for Hunger. In the US and other high-income nations, the bulk of food waste is seen at the consumption and household levels, rather than in earlier stages. Conversely, developing countries typically create more food waste during the harvesting and production processes. 

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Causes and Effects of Food Waste

Discarded food is rampant in landfills, potentially causing soil and groundwater pollution. But the harmful environmental effects of food waste don’t end there – food waste is considered the world’s top contributor of methane into the atmosphere. About one-third of total global greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture industry, and nearly every scrap of food waste ends up in landfills, further polluting the air we breathe. 

As it stands, much of the world lives in an area with an unhealthy level of air pollution, and those pollution levels are expected to rise on a global scale. What’s more, research indicates that our indoor air quality (IAQ) is also increasingly poor, for several reasons. Along with biological pollutants and excess moisture, outdoor events can further contribute to poor IAQ, such as car exhaust, structure and forest fires, and methane fumes from nearby landfills and dumpsites. 

While we can’t necessarily do much on an individual level to reduce transportation-based or other forms of air pollution, humans can do better in regards to preventing food waste. Before you head to the grocery store, for instance, plan so that you avoid purchasing food that you don’t need, or that may go bad before its expiration date. And if you’re not very creative when it comes to re-using leftovers, only cook as much as your family will consume in a single meal to help reduce food waste.

Changing Our Daily Habits for the Greater Good

When it comes to climate change, adapting our habits goes even deeper. Throughout history, humans have had to deal with the issue of food waste and excess consumption, and modern humans can learn a thing or two from our ancestors. For Native Americans and the early settlers of the American West, curbing food waste was even a matter of survival. 

Using as much of a trapped animal as possible both minimised waste and kept hungry wild animals at bay. Early hunters ate or dried as much meat as they could and then set to work on the rest of the animal. Animal hides were used to make clothing and bedding, and various tools were made from internal organs, bones, and teeth. 

Of course, modern humans don’t have to worry much about using the entirety of a trapped animal, and our food waste considerations have become more complex as the world continues to advance and our world population grows. Refrigeration and innovations in food preservation have allowed us to store more food at a single time for more people than ever before in history. Unfortunately, we’ve also become much more wasteful in the process, and the enormity of the issue is abundantly clear.

It will take both individual efforts and government intervention to curb the phenomenon of food waste, and a myriad of policies have been put in place in recent years designed to do just that. Leaders in Hong Kong, for example, implemented an ambitious food waste plan in 2013 with the ultimate goal of diverting 40% of food waste from landfills by 2022. Raising public awareness is at the heart of the waste reduction plan, along with improving food waste treatment technologies.

Key Takeaways

Even in a world where technological innovations are an everyday occurrence, humans still haven’t figured out a viable solution to climate change. While the issue is a multi-faceted one, there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that climate change and food waste are inherently linked. As such, by being mindful of our daily habits, we can work towards a tangible solution to both food waste and climate change, for a healthier planet. 

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Featured image by: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash