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Visualize the contents of your fridge: cartons of eggs, tubs of yogurt, chicken breasts or ground beef on Styrofoam trays, blocks of tofu or strips of tempeh, bags of apples, bricks of cheese, heads of broccoli and leafy greens, jar upon jar of condiments and other sundries, leftovers and prepared foods packed in containers. Now imagine pitching one-third of it.
Until now, that’s been the commonly cited extent of our food waste — first put forward in a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report nearly a decade ago — and one-third already seemed bad enough. But that estimate, as a new study published in the journal Plos One suggests, may have minimized the scale of the issue.
In their analysis, researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands found that globally, we could be tossing more than twice as much food as previously believed. And the more money we have, the more food we waste.
“The problem is much worse than we think. We have to wake up. I hope it’s a wake-up call,” Monika van den Bos Verma of Wageningen University & Research told New Scientist .
In their examination of data from the FAO, World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), researchers found a link between food waste and affluence: when our spending reaches $6.70 a day, the amount of food we throw away starts to rise. “Food waste is a luxury when you’re poor, it’s not when you’re richer. The value of food, it goes down (as you get richer),” van den Bos Verma added. “It’s also availability: the more you have, the more you’re likely to waste.”
Each day, the average person wastes 527 calories, the researchers reveal, which is roughly the equivalent of a Big Mac (560 calories), Quarter Pounder with Cheese (520 calories) or Tim Hortons Sausage Breakfast Sandwich (500 calories). Put differently, they say, if we used the food at our disposal more effectively, we could feed five people instead of four. The FAO had found this caloric spend to be significantly lower.
“What we estimate is that FAO’s original estimate of 214 kilocalories per capita per day is actually a vast underestimate of the global food waste as we measure it, because we have a factor two larger estimate of 527 kilocalories per capita per day,” Thom Achterbosch, also of Wageningen University & Research, told the BBC .
The problem is much worse than we think. We have to wake up. I hope it’s a wake-up call
An important distinction, though, is that the Dutch research focused solely on the waste that occurs once food reaches consumers — not the food lost during production. The earlier FAO findings encompassed both. “The study is by no means the definitive word on the levels of consumer waste,” Andrea Cattaneo of the FAO told New Scientist , adding that the new research furthers the conversation, but is ultimately “one more estimate.”
Reducing portion sizes, and only buying as much as you need at any given time are some straightforward strategies to help reduce household waste, the authors said, as they stressed the need for behavioural change coupled with an enhanced appreciation for food in general. And while making an effort to reduce household food waste will certainly help save money, the repercussions extend far past personal finance. World hunger and the expenditure of natural resources are also enmeshed — and squandered food leaves a carbon footprint. According to the FAO, “If food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.”
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