Our global food system is drowning in waste. About one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted every year, and the US alone wastes as much as 40% of its food. More food ends up in American landfills and incinerators than any other single material.
Many people have undertaken well-meaning efforts to fight food waste, from eating ugly produce to upcycling waste into meals. These are good ideas. But in order to effectively deal with the problem, we have to grapple with a critical piece of information about our food system: Not all food waste is created equal.
Most conversations about food waste use weight as a rudder to steer toward possible solutions, citing statistics about the pounds of food that go to the dump every year. But weight doesn’t take into account of any of the negative inputs or outputs from the lifecycle of food production. It treats one pound of broccoli the same as one pound of red meat.
In fact, meat uses up far more energy and resources. Consider water. It takes about 34 gallons of water to grow one pound of broccoli, whereas it takes 1,847 gallons of water to grow one pound of beef. That’s about 54 times more water for the same one pound of food. It turns out that all of the different costs of food waste, whether measured in terms of water, the economy, the environment, or animal welfare, vary greatly by the type of food that is being tossed in the trash.
An easy rule-of-thumb to identify carbon-intensive foods is determining whether the product is high up on food chain. In other words: Is it animal-based?
According to one meta-analysis of 555 food production systems for 22 food types, 20 servings of vegetables have less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than one serving of beef. And so letting ground beef go bad is a much bigger deal than spoiled radishes. Meanwhile, seafood is two to 25 times more harmful than plants per kilocalorie, across a multitude of environmental factors including GHG emissions, energy use, and acidification potential.
Although a higher percentage of fruits, vegetables, and grains are wasted every year, roughly 20% of meat and dairy and 35% of fish is wasted globally. When you think about the total number of animals consumed every year around the world, those percentages represent millions of individual lives. Strategies to reduce animal-based food waste could thus not only prevent a lot of environmental damage, but also ensure that fewer animals are killed.
To fight food waste effectively, we need an entirely new framework—one that focuses on the types of foods that are wasted, instead of just the amount wasted. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, for example, outlines ways to prevent or divert wasted food in order of efficacy, but this analysis doesn’t account for the varying resource requirements of different types of food.
It wasn’t long ago that many sustainability advocates focused on eating locally as a strategy to minimize one’s “foodprint.” Today, we’ve come to understand that measuring the environmental impact of one’s food by its travel mileage is far too simplistic. Transportation accounts for only one tenth of our foodprint, whereas production accounts for over 80%. It turns out that what we eat matters more than where it comes from—and what we waste matters more than how much we toss out.