Get on Board for the Climate: What To Do About Too Much Food

Martha Walden, 11th Hour

The Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food. Each tier of the Food Recovery Hierarchy focuses on different management strategies. Source:

In a world where people go hungry, food waste weighs on the conscience of those who have plenty. Here in the US about 63 million tons of food — approximately 40 percent of what we grow — gets wasted every year. More than a million tons of that is never harvested, and the rest of it ends up in landfills.

Mountains of garbage point to not only a lost opportunity to feed people but an overtaxed environment as well. Rotting food creates methane, a huge cause of climate change. Also, producing and distributing food destined for the landfill wastes energy, emitting pointless greenhouse gases (GHGs).

According to the food recovery hierarchy published by the The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most desirable method of reducing food waste is to reduce the volume generated. Maldistribution rather than inadequate supply is the problem.

So the next best way to keep food from being wasted is to get it to people who need it. Federal programs facilitate food recovery by providing liability protections and tax incentives for food donors, and grants for the infrastructure required to recover food. On the state level SB 1383 requires diverting a minimum of 20 percent of landfill-bound food to people who need it. A partnership of Food for People and Humboldt State University to rescue and distribute such food netted a $163,657 grant from CalRecycle in 2019.

The third strategy on the EPA hierarchy is to feed food waste to livestock. Federal law requires heating up food scraps containing animal products to kill bacteria, but some states require heat treatment of vegetable scraps as well. Some states even ban feeding any food waste at all to livestock. All in all, feeding animals that themselves become food contributes a lot to the very high carbon footprint of eating meat, particularly factory-farmed meat.

Using bio-digesters to make energy from organic waste, including food, is the fourth most efficient way to deal with food waste. Many municipalities in California — fifteen to be exact — do just that in order to comply with SB 1383. Sixteen more are under construction. If it’s going to rot and make methane, capture that methane and use it. Some of them use the biogas to create electricity; others compress it to make fuel for trucks and cars.

Last and supposedly least comes composting food scraps to make fertilizer. Composting is one of the cheapest and therefore most important methods in my book of dealing with organic waste. Enriching the soil enhances its capacity to both store carbon and to grow carbon-fixing biomass. However, a large centralized compost facility isn’t suitable for rural areas like Humboldt, and state laws can be an obstacle for smaller regional composting operations. Farmers and other interested parties are looking at the feasibility of changing the regulations.

On the consumer level, buying more than we can eat inflates demand, contributing to the oversupply problem. It’s impossible to eliminate waste altogether, but we can no longer afford — if we ever could — to throw away 40 percent of our food supply. Our reckless use of resources clogs the atmosphere and changes the climate, even while unfair distribution deprives many people of what they need.