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One-third of food produced in the United States goes to waste—here's how that impacts the environment

One-third of all food produced annually is unconsumed and simply becomes waste.
Food loss and waste per person increased over the last decade and tripled since 1960.

There are 900 million acres of farmland in the United States, broken into more than 2 million farms. This accounts for approximately 40% of all acreage in the U.S.

Much of this farmland is used to raise livestock and grow corn and soybeans. But not all of it is used to produce foodstuffs for direct human consumption—a lot of it is used to produce food for livestock. This makes livestock and other animal production farms and facilities ancillary beneficiaries of U.S. farming. Agriculture, food production, and related industries (such as food manufacturing and retailing) were responsible for $1.055 trillion of the United States' gross domestic product in 2020—5% of the overall GDP.

To look at the environmental impact of domestic food waste, OhmConnect cited data from the EPA publication From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste, released in November 2021.

One-third of all food produced annually is unconsumed and simply becomes waste. This also means that the resources used to produce that food in the supply chain—water, pesticides, gas or diesel used for freight and delivery, and energy for refrigeration—are also wasted.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the U.S. wastes between 161 and 335 billion pounds of food per year, equal to anywhere from 492 to 1,032 pounds per person annually. To translate this figure into something most people are aware of and many actively keep track of, this equates to as much as 1,520 calories per person per day wasted, or enough food to feed 150 million people.

Food loss and waste per person increased over the last decade and tripled since 1960.  Fruits and vegetables are among the foods that go to waste most often, and the consumption stage—typically at home or in restaurants—is responsible for approximately half of that waste.

Most food is wasted when it reaches consumers

Every type of food is wasted most during the consumption stage, which occurs in homes, restaurants, and other food service establishments. A 2020 study projecting the environmental benefits of cutting the U.S.'s food loss and waste in half found that addressing households, restaurants, and food processing would have the biggest effect on the environment, whereas addressing institutional food service or retail would have a minimal environmental impact.

According to Brian Roe, professor and faculty lead at the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, the average American family can put thousands of dollars of food in the trash each year.

An American Journal of Agricultural Economics study published in 2020 found the loss to be $240 billion in total in homes nationally, breaking down to $1,866 per household—though based on the most current U.S. Census' findings of the total number of U.S. households, that figure is closer to $1,961 per household.

The annual environmental footprint of food loss and waste per person adds up

- Agricultural land wasted: 19,000 square feet
- Water: 19,000 gallons
- Pesticides: 2.5 pounds
- Fertilizer: 44.5 pounds
- Energy: 2,140 kilowatt-hours
- Greenhouse gas emissions: 1,190 pounds CO2

The issue with food loss and waste isn't just about what ends up in the trash can. It's about the loss and waste of everything that went into that potato, or banana, or onion—the water, the land, the pesticides, the fertilizer, and the energy add up to a greater, compounded loss.

To determine the environmental impact of food loss and waste, researchers consider how much food is lost or wasted, the type of food it is, and where in the supply chain it was wasted. The further along the supply chain food is wasted, the greater the impact on the environment because impacts are cumulative.

All told, the greenhouse gas emissions from one person's wasted food annually are equivalent to those from the average passenger car driving 1,336 miles. And the estimated water wasted is roughly what an average American household uses over the course of 63 days.

90% of food wasted in the supply chain is edible

Ninety percent of food wasted in the supply chain is edible, with inedible things like bones and shells making up the other 10%. Studies put the number of wasted calories per day between 1,100 and 1,520, a sizable portion of the recommended daily caloric intake.

This waste ends up in a landfill. According to the EPA, food waste is the nation's most commonly found material burned at landfills—it accounts for 24% and 22% of landfilled and combusted municipal solid waste, respectively.

The US far outpaces other countries when it comes to food waste

North Americans waste more than three times what people waste in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and more than 10 times what people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa waste.

When looking at food waste and loss by regional wealth, people in the U.S. waste 503 grams per person per day—196 grams more than those in other high-income countries. Food loss decreases as regional wealth decreases: People in low-income countries waste just 43 grams per person per day.

Country by country, the U.S. is surpassed by only two in the generation of food waste (China and India) and two in food waste per person (New Zealand and Ireland).

Fruits and vegetables make up the largest share of food loss and waste globally

Fruits and vegetables make up 80% of all food loss and waste in sub-Saharan Africa and 64% of all food loss and waste in industrialized Asia. In North America and Oceania, they make up about half of all wasted food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, up to 60% of all fruits and vegetables find their way into landfills. 

Some of the food waste is attributed to the financial, technical, and managerial constraints of producing food in countries with a less developed infrastructure, as well as underdeveloped food distribution networks and poor harvest and handling technology and techniques. These together result in billions of dollars in losses yearly. Much of the waste is also attributable to the demand for "perfect" fruits and vegetables.

Cutting the nation's food loss and waste in half could meaningfully conserve resources and reduce the environmental impacts of the food system, according to the EPA. By halving the food loss and waste across the country, the U.S. could lessen the environmental footprint by 3.2 trillion gallons of water as well as 262 billion kWh of energy—that's enough to power 21.5 million U.S. homes for a year.

This story originally appeared on OhmConnect and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.