Want To Tackle Food Waste And Help Animals? Start Here
As animal advocates, the subject of food waste may seem slightly out of our wheelhouse. While it is clearly an environmental issue, it’s a bit harder to see food waste as an animal issue. From an animal ethics perspective, the logic goes like this: our food system is inefficient, and much of the food that we produce is wasted, including meat and other animal products. By increasing efficiency and decreasing food waste, we decrease the number of animals that are needlessly slaughtered to feed those who choose to eat meat.
Below, we outline multiple dimensions of the food waste issue (with sources from Faunalytics and elsewhere) and give some ideas on where animal advocates might be able to make a difference.
The Emissions Problem
One way that environmental advocates and scientists measure our impact on the environment is by measuring our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Relating this to food waste, a study from the University of Michigan set out to calculate the GHG emissions associated with the production of food that is lost and/or wasted at the retail and consumer levels, and the results were shocking: First, they found that food losses account for 31% (by weight) of food at retail and consumer levels, and unsurprisingly the meats category dominates. Although beef accounts for only 4% (by weight) of the retail-level food supply, it contributes to 36% of the associated GHG emissions. Overall, the researchers found that food losses contribute an estimated 1.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalents or about 28% to the overall carbon footprint of the average U.S. diet, which has one of the highest rates of meat consumption in the world.
The Balance Between Developed and Developing Countries
A study on the topic of food waste found that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, amounting to a staggering 1.3 billion tons per year. The report states that this waste means that “huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the GHG emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain.”
However this global view inevitably brings up issues of inequality between “developed” and “developing” countries. Just as meat consumption varies from country to country, so do the ways that food is distributed, and wasted. Much more food is wasted per capita in the industrialized world than in developing countries. In Europe and North-America 95-115 kg/year is wasted each year per capita, while in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia it’s estimated to be only 6-11 kg/year. Looked at in another light, the problem becomes even more stark: food wasted by consumers in high-income countries (222 million tons) is roughly equal to the entire food production of Sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).
Looking at food waste in terms of emissions and the balance between different parts of the world has its place, but the issue also includes a dimension of personal behavior that’s important to address. Yes, there are industry behaviors that contribute to food waste: every step of the supply chain has inefficiencies, from harvesting to storage to distribution to stocking in stores. However, as consumers, there are various ways that food waste is our problem too. In fact, while food losses in developing countries are mainly related to “financial, managerial and technical limitations” in the system, in developed countries, waste “mainly relates to consumer behaviour as well as to a lack of coordination between different actors in the supply chain.”
In a recent TED Talk, Tristram Stuart (incidentally, the author of a huge history of vegetarianism) discussed his research into food waste, and describes the tremendous scale at which food is wasted because it doesn’t match cosmetic standards, despite being completely edible. This waste is largely driven by a perception among western retailers that consumers demand food that is cosmetically unblemished. Anticipating this, a big proportion of food is discarded, or diverted to non-human use, before it even leaves the farm.
Another report outlines the various ways that food is wasted on a “post-consumer” level, including plate scrapings, poor storage/stock management at home; food discarded before serving; poor food preparation technique; edible food discarded together with inedible food, and confusion over “best before” and “use by” dates.
The idea that animals are “wasted” when they are slaughtered but not consumed may be one of the hardest things for animal advocates to reckon with. Still, advocates need to be honest about the fact that meat waste exists, and that, even if they feel no animal should be killed for our consumption, it is even more problematic for animals to be killed and ultimately just be thrown into the trash.
Perhaps the best resource we have on the subject of meat waste is a study by the Counting Animals blog. In it, the author breaks down all of the various estimates of food waste at the retail and consumer level for different types of meat. The results here, as above, are staggering and should give us serious pause: “Overall, we waste 26.2% of all the meat that enters the U.S. retail market. Based on the data here, this corresponds to over 25 billion fish, over 15 billion shellfish, over a billion chickens and over a hundred million other land animals that we kill to serve the U.S. food supply.”
Digging Our Way Out
Some degree of food loss is unavoidable when we look at a global supply chain. However, there is a great deal that can be done to mitigate losses, and even more that can be done to curb waste. A group of food industry experts recently interviewed by Mintel described a range of ways that industry – from food production companies to grocery stores – are starting to take food waste seriously, and alter everything from the supply chain to packaging to lower their waste ratios. For their part, some consumers are pushing back against the unrealistic (and incredibly wasteful) cosmetic standards of grocery stores, under the rough name of the “Ugly Food Movement.” It’s a small step, but a step in the right direction.
Food waste has become a major enough financial issue that Forbes is paying attention, and their list of various solutions to the food waste problem is worth checking out in full. Their discussion of the topic concludes that ultimately, food waste is a food security issue, and a key dimension of that is thinking about consuming less meat: “a crucial step in ensuring food security will be to move away from animal products, thus increasing the efficiency of our food system in terms of calories delivered.”
Of course, going vegetarian or vegan doesn’t make you immune from being complicit in food waste, but it does make a difference in your overall GHG emissions. Some food for thought: By just switching to an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet, you decrease your per capita daily GHG emissions by about 30%, roughly the same as the decrease that could be achieved by eliminating all retail- and consumer-level food losses (28%).