How did you celebrate World Environment Day on June 5th? Well, don’t feel too badly if the day passed by without your knowledge, because you’re not alone—this special day doesn’t seem to receive a great deal of press in our country. World Environment Day is organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and features a different theme every year. This year’s theme was “Eat.Think.Save.” -- focusing on the significant amount of food that is wasted globally every year. Not only is this wasted food a tragedy in light of the billion starving people on our planet, but it is also damaging to the environment.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of global food production is either wasted or lost annually. This means that one-third of the resources that we put into the food system are also wasted. This waste comes at a significant environmental cost, especially when one considers that globally, our food system is responsible for using 25% of all habitable land, 70% of fresh water consumption, and accounts for 80% of deforestation and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the UNEP. Take one-third of each of those figures, and you begin to get an idea of how much of our valuable resources we’re wasting each year—quite unsettling to consider.
So what can be done to combat this excessive waste? People from around the world registered activities and events they organized in recognition of World Environment Day. Some of the events in the United States included social media campaigns to raise awareness of the issue of food waste, classes on composting, gardening, and food preservation, a Local Food Expo, and pledges to eat waste-free meals. The UNEP itself emphasizes two different methods of combating food waste: food preservation and sustainable consumption.
· Food Preservation: this isn’t as pressing an issue here in the United States as it is in developing countries. All we need to do to “preserve” our food is to toss it into the refrigerator or freezer, or perhaps just zip closed the re-sealable bag that the food is packaged in. In regions of the world that don’t have access to such easy means to preserve food, they must get a little more creative and utilize more labor-intensive methods (examples here). However, one huge issue here in the United States is not whether we have the ability to preserve our food, but whether we actually do it. How many times have you pulled some produce out of your fridge that was starting to look a little wilted, and then tossed it in the garbage? I’ll admit that I’ve done it before. Clearly, we don’t want to eat food that is rotting or unsafe, but here is the key: eat the food before it goes bad, or don’t buy more food than you know you’ll be able to eat before it spoils.
o If you have food that is beyond the point where it is safe to eat, try composting it instead of throwing it in the garbage, so at least its nutrients will be returned to the soil and are available for re-use in your own garden.
o Instead of chucking that slightly wilted vegetable, try to find a recipe in which you can use it—one that requires baking, boiling, sautéing—and chances are you won’t even notice the slight wilting.
o Next time you consider tossing food in the garbage, just remember the resource use statistics listed above, and perhaps that will persuade you to choose a better option!
· Sustainable Consumption focuses on making choices to consume less and consume wisely, with the goal of reducing resource use, pollution, and environmental degradation.
o Choose locally grown food: this results in a smaller carbon footprint, as your food has to travel fewer miles from field to table (see my Food Miles article for more info). Also consider that if you’re purchasing produce—bananas, for example—imported from a tropical region, they likely came at the expense of the rainforest in which they were grown. Deforestation of tropical rainforests for expansion of agriculture has been cited as the biggest threat to biodiversity and one of the largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions.
o Choose organic food: food grown organically comes without the hefty environmental toll of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Not only is it healthier for you, it is much better for our environment and creates significantly less pollution. Organic farming has also been found in many cases to promote species biodiversity in the farmland.
o Choose food with less packaging: what many people don’t think about is that not only does their food have an environmental footprint, but so does the packaging it comes in. Oftentimes, more water and fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of the packaging materials than in growing and producing the food itself. And let’s not forget that the packaging will most likely end up in a landfill after the food has been consumed, creating even more pollution.
o Plan meals and consume less: when you purchase excessive quantities of food each time you visit the grocery store, chances are you won’t be able to use all of it before it spoils, and so a little bit of each food item will be wasted. If you plan meals carefully and only purchase what you need, then you’ll have much better chances of using all of the food before it goes to waste—plus you might even save a little money in the process.
o Just for fun, take a look at what a week’s worth of groceries looks like for typical families in countries around the world. Which families are consuming sustainably? (Hint, it’s not the family from the US!)
There are certainly many things to consider in regard to our food choices and the environmental repercussions of those choices. In the spirit of World Environment Day 2013, make an effort to "Eat.Think.Save" and reduce the food waste in your life, and let’s see if collectively we can’t work toward eliminating that one-third of global food production wasted each year, and manage to save some of our precious and rapidly disappearing natural resources in the process.