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It’s often overlooked, but wasted food is a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a growing number of creative start-ups are working to solve the problem. The goal is to find markets for so-called “ugly” food, or perfectly fine fruits and vegetables that are thrown out for having superficial defects. The start-ups are helping producers sell the produce at reduced rates. Another strategy is to market the produce as ingredients for things like sauces, which would make their appearance irrelevant. While these small gains are important, they hardly touch on the larger problem. The truth is, food waste is a global phenomenon.

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According to a 2010 article in Philosophical Transactions, waste begins in the fields. The paper points to an often quoted—though difficult to substantiate—reality of the food supply chain: “As much as half of all the food grown is lost or wasted before and after it reaches the consumer.” For example, poor roads and storage facilities, especially in the developing world, lead to significant supply losses. In some countries, drying, storage, and transport account for grain losses of nearly 40%. In the case of fragile crops like papayas, that can mean the entire load. Urbanization plays a role, too. As people move to the cities, they become further estranged from the sources of food production. Urban migrations thus demand continued improvements to the means of food transportation and storage.

In the developed world, consumers play a much larger role in this process. For example, UK households accounted for nearly ten metric tons of wasted food per year, which contributed 20 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Households with children tended to discard the most.

Perishable foods, unsurprisingly, are the most vulnerable. A 2005 study of Swedish households found that more dairy products were discarded than consumed. And the problem is further exacerbated by contributing behaviors. Consider the fact that most households use their cars to pick up groceries. If much of that food is then wasted, these car trips amount to an unnecessary expenditure of greenhouse emissions each year.

It’s a difficult problem to solve, but one we’d better work on. The 2010 study predicts that if we continue down our current path, we will be unable to feed the world’s population in the coming decades.


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Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 365, No. 1554, Food security: feeding the world in 2050 (27 September 2010), pp. 3065-3081
Royal Society
Ambio, Vol. 34, No. 4/5, MAT 21 / Food 21 -- A Sustainable Food Chain (Jun., 2005), pp. 371-375
Springer on behalf of Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences