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Land of plenty: 50 percent rise in the amount of food wasted in America worsens global warming, consumes freshwater

Just before Thanksgiving a new study shows that Americans are throwing away more food than ever. Since 1974 the amount of food Americans waste per capita has risen by approximately 50 percent, according to a new study in PLoS ONE. Researchers found that food waste is adding to America’s greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for over one quarter of the nation’s freshwater consumption every year.

Today Americans waste 1400 calories of food per person every day: 150 trillion calories per year. On average people require 2000 calories a day. This means that every American throws away enough food daily to nearly feed one extra person (70 percent of the 2000 calorie average).

The paper further argues that the rise in food waste is contributing to climate change. According to the study, food waste in America consumes approximately 300 million barrels of oil every year from the fossil fuels used in farming. In 2003 this was 4 percent of the nation’s total oil consumption. The study does not incorporate greenhouse gases emissions due to land-use changes, such as deforestation, for growing the food that is ultimately wasted.

Children in Akavandra, Madagascar. Fifty percent of children in Madagascar “suffer retarded growth due to a chronically inadequate diet,” according to the World Food Programme. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The researchers note that another hidden factor in the link between food waste and global warming is rotting food, which “produces substantial quantities of methane—gas with 25 fold more potent global warming potential than CO2 which would have been the primary end product had the food been eaten and metabolized by humans.”

In addition, at a time when water scarcity is becoming increasingly a problem worldwide, food waste in America is a massive consumer of water. The paper states that “assuming that agriculture utilizes about 70% of the freshwater supply, our calculations imply that more than one quarter of total freshwater use is accounted for by wasted food.”

The study used data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) regarding the amount of food in America. But to decipher how much food was actually consumed and how much wasted, the study employed a complex mathematical model, which factored in the fact that the average weight of Americans has risen steadily over the past 30 years.

The researchers believe that lessening food waste in America could have several benefits: “addressing the oversupply of food energy in the US may help curb the obesity epidemic as well as decrease food waste, which has profound environmental consequences.”

While the US wastes 150 trillion calories a year, one billion people are going hungry worldwide according to the UN.

CITATION: Hall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC (2009) The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940.

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