The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact

Abstract: Food waste contributes to excess consumption of freshwater and fossil fuels which, along with methane and CO2 emissions from decomposing food, impacts global climate change. Here, we calculate the energy content of nationwide food waste from the difference between the US food supply and the food consumed by the population. The latter was estimated using a validated mathematical model of metabolism relating body weight to the amount of food eaten. We found that US per capita food waste has progressively increased by ~50% since 1974 reaching more than 1400 kcal per person per day or 150 trillion kcal per year. Food waste now accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption and ~300 million barrels of oil per year.

Introduction to the Article

Recent spikes in food prices have led to increasing concern about global food shortages and the apparent need to increase agricultural production. Surprisingly little discussion has been devoted to the issue of food waste. Quantifying food waste at a national level is difficult because traditional methods rely on structured interviews, measurement of plate waste, direct examination of garbage, and application of inferential methods using waste factors measured in sample populations and applied across the food system. In contrast, national agricultural production, utilization, and net external trade are tracked and codified in detailed food balance sheets published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The food balance sheets provide a comprehensive assessment of the national food supply, including alcohol and beverages, adjusted for any change of food stocks over the reference period. Since 1974, there has been a progressive increase in the per capita US food supply. Over the same period, there has also been an increase of body weight as manifested by the US obesity epidemic. We sought to estimate the energy content of food waste by comparing the US food supply data with the calculated food consumed by the US population.
Energy from ingested food supports basal metabolism and physical activities, both of which are functions of body weight. Surplus ingested energy is stored in the body and is reflected by a change of body weight. Because the average body weight of the US population has been increasing over the past 30 years, it is not immediately clear how much of the increased food supply was ingested by the population. Quantifying the food intake underlying an observed change of body weight requires knowing the energy cost of tissue deposition and the increased cost of physical activity and metabolic rate with weight gain. Here, we develop and validate a mathematical model of human energy expenditure that includes all of these factors and used the model to calculate the average increase of food intake underlying the observed increase of average adult body weight in the US since 1974 as measured by the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Read the full article here in PDF.

Citation: Hall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC (2009) The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940

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