Food Waste | Global North (Current)

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This picture by Flickr user Starr shows the kinds of food waste that get thrown out by people globally.

By Chloe Frankovic

Anthropogenic food waste is a relatively recent phenomenon that illustrates the inequalities and environmental impacts of the Anthropocene. Food waste highlights disparities in who has access to food and who does not, and demonstrates differential vulnerability between groups of people. 40% of the food produced in the United States is never eaten, but at the same time 1 in 8 Americans are struggling to put food on the table. Large areas of land are used to produce food that goes uneaten and ends up in landfills, where it releases high levels of methane that contributes to Anthropogenic climate change. Food waste exemplifies the Anthropocene by capturing the inequalities and differential vulnerabilities of this epoch and the environmental changes, like land and resource use, and climate change caused by human activities.

Wasting food can be seen as a defining feature of the inequalities in the Anthropocene, as only some people have the “luxury” of affording to waste food. This is not just an American problem, but a global one, as hunger is something that affects people around the world. Almost one billion people globally go hungry, but an estimated one third, or 1.3 billion pounds, of food produced each year goes to waste. This gap in food that is produced and food that is actually consumed shows how rampant consumerism creates larger inequalities between people who can afford to waste and people who can’t even afford to buy nutritious food. The ability to buy and consume nutritious food illustrates how some groups of people are less vulnerable to inequalities of the Anthropocene.

Food waste happens at multiple levels in the supply chain, at the primary production level, the retail level, and the consumer level which shows how food waste is a universal occurrence on many different scales, and that it affects people at multiple levels. Food waste at the individual or household level is the most common form of food waste, because so many people throw their food away when it nears its “best by” date or if it does not look perfect. This level of food waste is where we see large inequalities between people, because it shows differential vulnerabilities in who can afford to waste imperfect food and who is not able to even put food on the table. Differential vulnerabilities in who can access nutritious foods and are seen in urban food deserts, where marginalized people in urban areas are not able to travel to grocery stores, but people in richer areas have access to grocery stores and nutritious foods, and are able to then waste this food in many cases. The majority of the people who live in food deserts are a part of minority and marginalized communities, which further shows the differential vulnerabilities in who can access food and who can waste food.

Food waste highlights the inequalities of the Anthropocene and the environmental problems caused by mass production and waste. Inequalities in who has access to food and who does not have access to food, and who is able to waste food exhibits the differential vulnerabilities that are emblematic of the Anthropocene. This is a global issue, as rich, Global North countries waste more food than Global South countries, and it is an issue within countries. Most of the people who are going hungry are located in Global South countries, and in marginalized communities in Global North countries. Per capita food waste in Global North countries has been increasing, while people in Global South countries do not have access to nutritious foods.

Just like food waste occurs on multiple levels, environmental impacts are caused by food production on multiple levels. One of these causes is the enormous amount of land that is used to cheaply produce food that doesn’t get consumed. An area larger than the size of China is used to produce food that is never consumed, and ends up decaying and releasing greenhouse gases in landfills. The food that is produced on this land is usually produced cheaply, so more food is produced for less, which leads to more food waste. This large amount of land and resources that are used shows how cheap food production ultimately leads to food waste and environmental issues caused by food waste and by the production of food.

Food that is discarded is almost never recovered and will never be consumed, so it will be left to decay in landfills and cause further environmental harm. 98% of the food that is wasted ends up in landfills where it decays and releases greenhouse gases that contribute to anthropogenic climate change. Decomposing food waste accounts for 7% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. The decomposition of organic food matter released large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, which is 25 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it is devastating to climate change because of how effectively it absorbs heat. This means that along with the pollutants created through the production of food, food waste helps to create more climate-change causing pollution and emissions.

With food waste comes the creation of more waste products, that I am going to call secondary food waste products. More and more we are seeing food that is unsustainably packaged in single-use plastics that end up in ecosystems around the world. Food eventually decomposes, but the detritus that comes along with food waste often outlives its organic counterparts. Food waste usually goes straight to landfills where it is left to decay, but there is no way to ensure that secondary food waste will make it to designated dumping areas, and that they won’t end up in our oceans and ecosystems. The Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, is composed of non-biodegradable plastics, some of which are secondary food waste. This garbage, which will not degrade naturally and will be around a lot longer than organic food waste, endangers both wildlife and human lives, and is exacerbated by producing and wasting food. 

The demand for food and the demand to create surplus food creates a trade-off in terms of land use, resource depletion, and stretching supplies. Large scale, cheap food production requires a vast amount of resources along with an enormous amount of land. The resources used, like pesticides and fertilizers, end up creating runoff pollution and are harmful to biodiversity in food production settings. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicted that global fertilizer use was likely to be more than 200.5 million tons in 2018. This widespread use of fertilizer means that more food is being produced cheaply, and more food will be wasted while people who don’t have access to food will continue to go hungry.

The production of large amounts of food, and the land and resources necessary for this production fit in with debates of the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene. The cheap production of mass amounts of food shows how capital processes allow people to have the ability to waste massive amounts of food, and the production of this food is enabled by processes through the Plantationocene. The land, labor, and resources used in the production of food can only be acquired through capitalist processes that result in the cheapening, and mass consumption and mass production of food. The large amounts of land and labor used are a result of plantation-based economies that take advantage of workers’ lives and of the lives of people that are displaced to make room for plantation activities.

Food waste shows the inequalities and differential vulnerabilities between people, and the environmental changes caused by humans in the Anthropocene.  The people who can waste food are usually not in marginalized communities, and live in rich, Global North countries, which shows inequalities in access to food within countries and globally. The food that is wasted will end up decaying in landfills, where it contributes to climate change, and the production of food takes up vast amounts of land, labor, and resources. These differences in the massive amount of food produced, and the amount of food waste show inequalities in the Anthropocene, and how marginalized communities are almost always going to be more disadvantaged by these inequalities.

Works Cited

“Fertilizer Use to Surpass 200 Million Tonnes in 2018.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/277488/icode/

“Food Loss and Food Waste.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/.

“Food Waste.” NRDC. https://www.nrdc.org/issues/food-waste.

“10 Food Waste Facts You Need to Know.” OLIO. https://olioex.com/food-waste/food-waste-facts/

Smith, Bonnie L. “Heat Up Those Leftovers, Not the Planet: How Combatting Food Waste Can Affect Climate Change.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 18, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 648-65.

Stuart, Tristram. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.