Food is a staple for survival and a supplement for happy stomachs and happy minds. Why is so much of it being wasted, especially when so many people are in need of it? Even more so, the cultivation and harvesting process of food can be degrading for the environment and can have adverse effects on the changing climate.

Chef in kitchen disposing of food waste

© WWF-US / Keith Arnold

According to the Food Waste Action Plan, “each year, between 30-40 percent of all food in the US is unsold or uneaten. That’s $408 billion worth of food—roughly 2 percent of US GDP—and about 4 percent of US GHG emissions”.

Across the globe, humans waste 40 percent of all the food we produce. According to World Wildlife Fund, the food we lose on farms alone could feed the world’s undernourished population almost four times over. Wasted food is roughly 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the main contributors to the loss of forests, grasslands, and other wildlife habitats, all while depleting our fresh water supply. Many people consider the global airline industry to account for a large majority of greenhouse gas emissions, but food waste is nearly four times that amount. Further so, more than 66 trillion gallons of water go toward producing food that’s lost or wasted every year. The total area of land used to produce food that was lost or wasted on farms globally equates to nearly 1.7 million square miles—an area larger than the Indian subcontinent. This impacts the natural habitat of many wild animals, the freshwater we share with them, and the global climate.

A growing issue has been the linkage between food waste and climate change. Food sent to landfills produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that impacts our climate. World Wildlife Fund shared that each year, wasted food emits more than 3.3 billion tons of these gases.

You may be wondering where in the supply chain from farm to fork all this waste is happening. The simple answer is that it occurs every step along the way. In the US, around 28 percent of waste happens in consumer-facing businesses like grocery stores and restaurants, while 37 percent of waste happens in our homes.

The Food Waste Action Plan described further that the food dilemma worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been a plethora of supply chain issues that have disrupted the production of food, stemming from many people getting sick, and unfortunately, passing away, as well as businesses shutting down due to COVID-19 precautions. With a loss of jobs in this vital industry, getting fresh food to the grocery store has been an increasingly hard challenge to overcome. You may have seen bare shelves when you’ve gone shopping or higher prices of food due to inflation and the complexity of the supply chain. You too may have been one of those cars lined up at the food pantry for hours, hoping you’d be able to provide a sufficient dinner for you and your family. Access to food (especially nutritious food) has been a known issue but the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on many of the gaps in the system and forced people to see these systemic problems firsthand.

It may seem all doom and gloom but there is a lot of work being done to curb this immense food waste issue, and in turn, ensuring that wildlife habitats and freshwater supplies are protected. If we’re able to build an efficient food system that intentionally reduces waste, we are then able to save the land, water, and energy that humans and wildlife depend on for survival.

In 2021, WWF partnered with a coalition of non-governmental organizations to develop a comprehensive food loss and waste policy action plan that will help the US meet its goal of halving food waste by 2030, while also working to build a more regenerative and resilient food system, mitigate climate change, and reverse nature loss. Building off of this action plan, WWF advocates for specific policies—such as the Zero Food Waste Act and School Food Recovery Act—to give communities across the country the support they need to measure, prevent, rescue, and recycle food waste.

The Food Waste Action plan proposes five actions to achieve national and international goals to reduce food loss and waste 50 percent by 2030:

  • Invest in Prevention and Keep Waste out of Landfills: Food is the single largest input by weight into US landfills and incinerators, where it causes social and environmental harm. Investing in infrastructure and programs that measure and prevent waste, incentivize rescue of surplus and safe excess food, and keep it out of landfills will help achieve climate gains, improve our country’s soils, boost profits for farmers, and feed more people.
  • Enable Surplus Food Donation: Less than 10 percent of excess food is donated rather than wasted. Through policy revisions, creating alternative markets, and strengthening regional supply chains, we can make it easier for farmers, retailers, and all foodservice organizations to donate excess food to help feed those in need in our communities.
  • Show US Leadership at Home and Abroad: The US has one of the world’s highest levels of food waste per person. It is vital for the nation’s food security, climate, economic, and recovery objectives that we set a leading example on how to drive solutions.
  • Educate and Activate Consumers: 37 percent of food waste happens at the US household level. We must educate and empower Americans to change their behaviors everywhere that they eat, in coordination with efforts in consumer-facing businesses to drive better food management.
  • Standardize National Date Labeling: Date label confusion is one of the leading causes of consumer and consumer-facing business food waste. We need consistent labels, standardized at the federal level, and streamlined public education on how to use and interpret.
Contrast of the beauty and grandeur of wildlife and the civilized industrial activity of modern man. Modern trash persists for a long time. Trash and litter amongst a beautiful scenery

© Shutterstock / Roman Mikhailiuk / WWF

Beyond the Food Waste Action Plan, World Wildlife Fund is working on projects with farmers to assess what produce isn’t being harvested, despite it being grown, and how they can overcome those challenges, as this food waste makes up 16 percent of the US total food loss and waste. WWF is also focusing on grocery stores in which they are working with businesses and governments in the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment—a regional public/private partnership focused on halving food waste on the west coast of North America by 2030. They have been tapping into the K-12 education network to use food waste opportunities as a tool in the Food Waste Warrior program. Lastly, they’ve been focusing on the hospitality and foodservice industry where they’ve provided tools for hotel properties and restaurateurs to help measure and manage their waste.

Back in 2019, Natural Habitat Adventures ran their very first (and the world’s first!) Zero Waste Adventure. On this Yellowstone Safari trip, they were successfully able to divert 99% of all waste produced on the trip as a byproduct of Nat Hab-sponsored trip operations. At the end of the trip, the group was able to fit their collective waste into a single quart-sized container. This Zero Waste Adventure was able to lay the groundwork for the travel industry to follow their lead and implement zero waste strategies around the world on various adventures. Nat Hab believes that the key to success going forward is not an all-or-nothing mentality, where only those who can achieve perfection opt to participate. Instead, they believe it is infinitely more valuable for 100 companies to adopt a few of these lessons than for just one or two companies to adopt them all. Read about their top 12 lessons learned for zero waste travel.

Food is one of those things that connects us all. In my eyes, there is nothing better than sitting down and sharing a meal with someone. It’s a way to experience someone’s culture, their identity, and experience some of their memories through each bite. I think we’re headed in the right direction with solving some of these deeply rooted food dilemmas and I’m thrilled that both WWF and Nat Hab are leading the way, with humans, wildlife, and the beautiful world around us in mind.