For climate's sake, finish your veggies

by Tim Lydon

The Oxford Dictionaries Online last year added the word “locavore,” defined as someone who eats mostly locally produced food. The word’s acceptance reflects the success of a movement that seeks to make a dent in global climate change by encouraging people to purchase food close to home. It’s just one part of an ongoing health food trend, and it’s helped rejuvenate home canning, wild foods and farmers markets, while at the same time influencing our choices at big-chain grocery stores.

But while the focus on food’s origin is great for people and the planet, a growing food-waste problem gets little attention. No doubt it’s an unglamorous part of the revolution, but food waste is important to climate, with recent studies equating the unused food Americans scrape from their plates each year to hundreds of millions of barrels of squandered oil. And recently, United Nations reports reveal the global scale of unused food, estimating that over one-third of food produced today is not eaten. It represents an enormous over-consumption of land, water and fossil fuel energy, along with an injustice to the world’s nearly 1 billion hungry people.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans alone send 33 million tons of uneaten food and meal preparation scraps to landfills annually, creating the largest single component of municipal solid waste. Never mind that trucking away all that food burns a lot of fuel. Nationally, decomposing food at landfills emits a massive amount of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If greenhouse gases were alcohol, carbon dioxide might be a wine cooler compared to methane’s grain alcohol. In effect, it makes our already tipsy climate drunker.

Research shows that most food waste is fish, dairy and vegetables. The most common reasons include spoilage, plate waste and the tendency to buy too much. Often we’re simply over-serving ourselves, both at the store and at the table.

But feeding food to landfills is only part of the problem. When we throw out food, we essentially throw out the water and energy that went into its production. Even for locally grown food, fossil fuels support production, packaging, delivery and storage. If somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of U.S. food is wasted, consistent with several studies and recent U.N. estimates for industrialized nations, then an equal share of energy to produce that food is also wasted.

Research presents staggering figures to quantify the lost energy. One study, from the University of Texas at Austin, estimates that the energy committed to annual food waste exceeds that provided by all U.S. offshore drilling.

That’s interesting to consider, especially given the sacrifices we’re making in pursuit of more fossil fuels. For instance, the Obama administration recently streamlined permits for Shell’s exploratory drilling in polar-bear and bowhead-whale habitat off Alaska’s remote Arctic Coast, despite spill-response concerns that seem justified by Shell’s recent floundering mistakes in Alaskan waters. Yet the operation will provide just a fraction of the energy we use sending food to landfills each year.

Similar math should be done for all the hydraulic fracturing for natural gas that is changing our air and water quality. The same goes for Canadian oil sands production, which will require massive pipelines like the Keystone XL or the Northern Gateway to British Columbia’s unspoiled Spirit Bear Coast. And consider this the next time Alaska’s lawmakers insist that we need to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In other words, if we need more energy, why not begin by fixing the glaring profligacy of our food-waste system?

It is happening in some places. In 2012, San Francisco celebrated its 1 millionth ton of food waste diverted from local landfills, the result of an ordinance requiring separation of organic material from other trash for composting at private facilities. The program helped the city reduce its carbon emissions 12 percent below 1990 levels. That’s big.

California hosts other such programs, and Tacoma, Wash., recently began a similar pilot. In Vancouver, British Columbia, where food comprises up to 40 percent of waste, the city will boost its recycling by increasing organics collection to weekly, while reducing regular trash pick-up to bi-weekly. The plan will divert 25,000 tons of food from the landfill each year, preventing 3,000 tons of annual greenhouse emissions. On a smaller scale, Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation near Glacier National Park created a partnership between schools, communities and the local college to compost food waste to enrich agricultural soil to grow local food. On the global front, the United Nations just kicked-off its “Reduce Your Foodprint” campaign to encourage food waste reductions from industrial to individual levels.

All of these programs require a mix of time, entrepreneurialism and government leadership. In the meantime, reducing food waste relies on awareness campaigns and personal discretion. For the moment, at least, recent fires, storms, pestilence, and drought have everyone talking about the climate. When that talk turns to action, addressing food waste should be right up there with changing light bulbs, improving fuel efficiency, and eating local.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in south-central Alaska.

© High Country News