Educational Resources Lets Talk Science Challenge participants

Wasted food on the ground

Wasted food on the ground (Mukhina1, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

The Environmental Impact of Wasted Food

Let's Talk Science

Summary

One-third of all food produced is wasted. Learn about the environmental consequences of food waste, and what you can do about it.
Food wastage footprint (2013) by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (3:15 min.).

Most of us have thrown food out at some point in our lives. Maybe we put more food on our plates than our stomachs could handle. Or maybe we left that milk in the fridge a little too long, and it went bad.

Throwing food away occasionally might not seem like a big deal. But did you know that  one-third of all food produced in the world goes to waste? The video “Food Wastage Footprint” from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations introduces us to the problem of food waste. Let’s explore the problem and the possible solutions in more detail.

What are the problems with food waste?

Think of all the steps involved in getting food to your plate. Food needs to be grown, processed, packaged, transported, marketed and, finally, sold. 

There are many ways that food can go to waste. We’ve already talked about throwing out food on our plate or in our fridge. But food gets wasted long before it gets to us. Some food goes to waste at the production stage. For example, sometimes pests can attack farm crops. Sometimes bad weather can destroy a crop yield, too. Food can also go bad when it is being transported. Finally, grocery stores often throw out food they can’t or don’t sell.

Unsold food outside a store
Unsold food outside a store (Source: Eivaisla via iStockphoto).

Every time food is wasted, all of the resources that went into each of those steps are wasted, too. For example, think about the plastic that went into packaging thrown-away frozen vegetables. Or, think about all the fumes emitted when fruit is shipped from South America to North America.

There are also enormous environmental costs to wasting food. For example, water is used in every stage of the food production process. People water crops. They give water to animals raised for meat. Packaging and transporting food takes water, too. When you waste food, all of that water also goes to waste. So does the water within the wasted food - think of a juicy apple! This wasted water is equivalent to about 170 trillion litres (or 45 trillion gallons) of water per year. According to the World Health Organization, the minimum amount of water needed per person per day is about 15-20 litres. If even a fraction of wasted water was saved, it could go a long way in providing people with water around the world! Wasting food wastes so much water that, if combined, it could cover all the world’s household water needs.

Did you know?

Currently, about 70 percent of available global freshwater resources are used to irrigate (water) crops and produce food. 

Food waste also heavily contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases. Food that is thrown out often goes to landfills. As it rots in the landfill, it produces a greenhouse gas called methane. Greenhouse gases are emitted in the production and transportation of food as well. Cows that are grown as livestock produce methane. Emissions from the vehicles that transport food produce carbon dioxide. Scientists believe that if we stopped throwing away food, we could prevent 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by the food system. 

Finally, let’s not forget the steps it took to produce our food in the first place. For example, to create a farm, you have to clear land. Clearing land can destroy wildlife habitats and, in turn, reduce biodiversity.

Per capita food loss for various regions of the world
Graph showing the per capita (per person) food loss for various regions of the world (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction, [http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/]. Reproduced with permission).

 

Graph - Text Version

North America has the highest food loss overall and the highest food losses by consumers. Latin America has the highest food losses in production to retailing food losses. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest consumer food losses and South and Southeast Asia have the lowest production to retailing food losses.

 

How can we solve the food waste problem?

There are lots of things food producers and suppliers can do to reduce the amount of wasted food. Food producers can invest in storage and preservation technology. Food can go bad if it is not stored properly post-harvest. In some places, refrigeration is not always practical. This is especially true in many developing countries. Scientists are researching alternatives to refrigeration in these areas. One option might be to dehydrate the food and store it in moisture-proof storage containers.

 
Supermarkets can reduce the prices of food that might be considered “imperfect” or "ugly". They can pay close attention to “best before” dates on their food. That way, perfectly good food will not be thrown away. Supermarkets can also donate food that isn’t sold.

Did you know?

In 2016, France passed a law saying that supermarkets could no longer throw away unsold food. They had to donate it to food banks instead.

Sometimes, food isn’t considered fit for humans to consume. Instead of throwing all that food away, some of it can be reused as animal feed. Currently, huge amounts of agricultural land are dedicated to growing crops to feed livestock. Clearing land for farming destroys the habitat of local animals and plants, so alternatives are always worth exploring.

Did you know?

Feed it Forward is a community food program in Toronto, Ontario. It includes a pay-what-you can grocery store, where all the food is donated by supermarkets and bakeries that did not sell it fast enough.

But there are also things consumers can do to reduce the amount of food that gets wasted. That means people like you and me! We can store food properly so it doesn’t go bad. We can ask for smaller portions if we eat in restaurants. Finally, we can also help the soil by composting our food waste instead of throwing it away.

The best places to store food in the refrigerator
Infographic showing the best places to store food in the refrigerator (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science based on an image by Love Food, Hate Waste Canada).

 

Infographic - Text Version

The best temperature for your fridge is 4 degrees Celsius or lower. The best place to store leftovers, drinks and berries is on the top shelf. The best place for milk, eggs and dairy is the middle shelf. The upper drawer is the best place to store deli meat and cheese. The bottom shelf is the coldest. This is where you should store meat and seafood. The warmest part is the door. This is where you should store pickles and condiments. One vegetable drawer should be set for high humidity. This is for vegetables that wild easily such as lettuce. The other vegetable drawer should be set for low humidity. This is for soft fruit and vegetables that rot easily.

 

Food waste is a huge problem. Let’s do our part to reduce it! 

 

STARTING POINTS

Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever wasted food? What could you do in the future to avoid this type of wastage?
  • What actions could you take to reduce food wastage in your own home? In your school?
  • Would/do you purchase bruised or misshapen fruits and vegetables? Why or why not?
  • Imagine you are trying to convince someone to reduce food wastage in the home. What would you say?
Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever wasted food? What could you do in the future to avoid this type of wastage?
  • What actions could you take to reduce food wastage in your own home? In your school?
  • Would/do you purchase bruised or misshapen fruits and vegetables? Why or why not?
  • Imagine you are trying to convince someone to reduce food wastage in the home. What would you say?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Should governments and municipalities put programs, such as incentives or monetary penalties, in place to reduce food wastage?
  • Should restaurants be required to offer at least two serving sizes so people can choose smaller servings? Explain.
  • Should “best before dates” and “sell by” labels be removed from foods? Why or why not?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Should governments and municipalities put programs, such as incentives or monetary penalties, in place to reduce food wastage?
  • Should restaurants be required to offer at least two serving sizes so people can choose smaller servings? Explain.
  • Should “best before dates” and “sell by” labels be removed from foods? Why or why not?
Exploring Concepts
  • How much food is wasted globally every year?
  • When food is wasted, other resources besides the food itself go to waste. Give an example of two valuable resources that are wasted when food is thrown in the garbage.
  • Describe two environmental and two societal issues connected to food wastage.
  • Food wastage is reduced when food spoilage is reduced. Describe the science or technology that is used to reduce food spoilage.
Exploring Concepts
  • How much food is wasted globally every year?
  • When food is wasted, other resources besides the food itself go to waste. Give an example of two valuable resources that are wasted when food is thrown in the garbage.
  • Describe two environmental and two societal issues connected to food wastage.
  • Food wastage is reduced when food spoilage is reduced. Describe the science or technology that is used to reduce food spoilage.
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Should scientists try to develop ways to produce more food to replace the food which is wasted or develop better ways to extend the freshness and storage time for the foods we already produce? Explain.
  • Knowing that close to one billion people live without enough food, do you think that it is ethical that so much food is being wasted? What should society do about this?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Should scientists try to develop ways to produce more food to replace the food which is wasted or develop better ways to extend the freshness and storage time for the foods we already produce? Explain.
  • Knowing that close to one billion people live without enough food, do you think that it is ethical that so much food is being wasted? What should society do about this?
Media Literacy
  • Imagine you are asked to design a media awareness campaign around food wastage issues. What are three main points you would want your audience to take away from your campaign?
  • Social media can be a very useful tool for bringing awareness to an issue such as food wastage. What are some examples of social media tools you think would be effective in a reduce food wastage campaign?
  • Canadaian chef Jagger Gordon has started the organization Feed it Forward to help make a difference to the lives of fellow Canadians who are in need of assistance with securing nutritious food and regular balanced meals by donating unused and unsold food otherwise destined for landfill. Do you think celebrities make a difference to a campaign such as this one? Explain.
Media Literacy
  • Imagine you are asked to design a media awareness campaign around food wastage issues. What are three main points you would want your audience to take away from your campaign?
  • Social media can be a very useful tool for bringing awareness to an issue such as food wastage. What are some examples of social media tools you think would be effective in a reduce food wastage campaign?
  • Canadaian chef Jagger Gordon has started the organization Feed it Forward to help make a difference to the lives of fellow Canadians who are in need of assistance with securing nutritious food and regular balanced meals by donating unused and unsold food otherwise destined for landfill. Do you think celebrities make a difference to a campaign such as this one? Explain.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This video and article can be used for supporting teaching and learning of Environmental Science and Food & Nutrition related to solid waste, food security, greenhouse gases, sustainable living and sustainability. Concepts introduced include irrigate, greenhouse gases, methane, biodiversity, food producers and composting. 
  • While viewing the video teachers could have students use a Read-View-Listen Learning strategy to help them consolidate information from the article and video. 
  • After students have watched the video and read the article, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to consolidate their understanding of the concept of a food waste. Ready-to-use Concept Definition reproducibles are available in [Google doc] or [PDF] formats. 
  • For a hands on activity related to this topic, as well as data management in Mathematics, teachers could have students conduct a survey of food wastage in their classroom or in the school. The survey could be followed-up up by having students create an action plan to help reduce food wastage at school. 
  • To consolidate learning from the video and article, teachers could provide students with an Exit Slip. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Exit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF]

Thank you to Colleen Ledwell for providing content for these Starting Points.

Teaching Suggestions
  • This video and article can be used for supporting teaching and learning of Environmental Science and Food & Nutrition related to solid waste, food security, greenhouse gases, sustainable living and sustainability. Concepts introduced include irrigate, greenhouse gases, methane, biodiversity, food producers and composting. 
  • While viewing the video teachers could have students use a Read-View-Listen Learning strategy to help them consolidate information from the article and video. 
  • After students have watched the video and read the article, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to consolidate their understanding of the concept of a food waste. Ready-to-use Concept Definition reproducibles are available in [Google doc] or [PDF] formats. 
  • For a hands on activity related to this topic, as well as data management in Mathematics, teachers could have students conduct a survey of food wastage in their classroom or in the school. The survey could be followed-up up by having students create an action plan to help reduce food wastage at school. 
  • To consolidate learning from the video and article, teachers could provide students with an Exit Slip. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Exit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF]

Thank you to Colleen Ledwell for providing content for these Starting Points.

Learn more

Danish supermarket gives expired food another shelf life (2016)

News story from Amara McLaughlin about the Danish company We-Food that tackles food waste by selling food that’s close to its best before date for a fraction of the price

Canadians get creative in solving food waste problem (2018)

Video (5:38) from CBS News' The National that showcases individuals and programs in Canada that are finding creative ways to help reduce food waste

Love Food Hate Waste Canada: Fridge Guide 

An organization established in partnership with the National Zero Waste Council to produce information on how to cut back on food waste, in the form of infographics, videos, and tutorials

Food First NL

Food First NL’s Mission is to actively promote comprehensive, community-based solutions to ensure access to adequate and healthy food for all.

Food Wastage Footprint 2 (2014)

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations  video (3:38 min.) covering the full economic, environmental and social costs of food loss and waste.

References

Eichenseher, T. (2012, August 29). Waste food, waste water — A message from world water week. National Geographic.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (n.d.). Save food: Global initiative on food loss and waste reduction.

GMO Answers. (n.d.). Food waste & water loss.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Reduce wasted food by feeding animals.

World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Fight climate change by preventing food waste.