Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat.

The model environmentalist tiptoes through life with a long list of “don’ts”, but there’s at least one enjoyable, effective, and easy thing those of us aspiring for environmental sainthood can do: eat!

That is, eat what you buy, and buy only what you will eat. 

The average family of four in the U.S. throws away $175 of food per month.  In fact,  around 40% of edible food (not counting peels, bones, etc) in the US gets thrown away.  Beyond the financial cost, the environmental implications are staggering when you consider all the water, fertilizer and pesticide that went into growing that food.  Consider the following estimates of resources dedicated to food that never gets eaten:

  • 25% of all freshwater
  • 4% of all US oil consumption
  • $90 billion in losses to the US economy (over $40 billion from households)
  • $750 million a year just to dispose of the food
  • 31 million tons of landfill waste

Some food is lost along the supply chain, but the largest portion of the waste is caused by consumers and restaurants.  Yup, the lettuce that went bad, the leftovers you never got around to eating, and the science experiment in the back of the fridge you’re hoping your housemate will clean.  Along with the side of potatoes you didn’t touch at brunch last weekend, it all adds up to a full 25% of the food in this country. 

Not to sound like your depression-era relative citing those starving kids in Africa, but world hunger actually is another reason to care about food waste.  With an expected 9-10 billion people eating off the planet in 2050, many high-level discussions have presented a choice between cutting down the rainforest to grow more food or growing more food on the same land (which would likely require all sorts of chemical inputs and biotechnology advances).  Each of these pieces may likely be necessary, but many would argue we produce enough food today to feed that many people. Focusing on improving the efficiency of our food system should be an important component of any conversation aimed at “feeding the world in 2050.”

It’s not quite as simple as just cleaning your plate, but that is an important component.  Stay tuned to this blog as we explore the issue of wasted food, both implications and solutions.  In the meantime, I challenge you to eat. 

About the Authors

Dana Gunders

Staff Scientist, Food & Agriculture program

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