That’s the biggest problem. While plenty of people drive or play pickleball, eating is particularly widespread. Seven billion people multiplies into a big number…
Creating the food we eat has significant climate impact. Some of the factors, in unranked order:
- We clear forests to create farms
- We use petro-chemicals to make fertilizer
- We grow plants and then feed them to animals
- Chemical run-off and erosion have significant impact
- We transport everything using trucks
- Some foods use far more land, water and fertilizer than others
- Some domesticated animals produce particularly potent gasses
- We refrigerate, heat and process the food
Even if we wasted no food at all, the impact of all of these activities would be enormous.
Clean your plate?
But the food production, delivery and consumption chain is filled with waste. The biggest impact happens on farms. Food doesn’t all ripen on the same day. Harvesting it is expensive and time-consuming. Pests (and birds) harm crops. Food is fragile. The economics of putting more time and labor into grabbing one last peach is greater than the economic benefit that peach produces. And, the distance from where something grows to where it is processed or consumed is non-zero.
It all adds up, and it’s all out of the control of the typical citizen. Consumer food waste is less than a quarter of the total.
Of course we shouldn’t buy more than we need, or simply discard food that can be turned into another meal, or useful compost for a community garden.
But climate change is a systems problem, and it requires systemic solutions. When we price carbon accurately, the efficient market will start to pay more attention to harvesting the last peach, or shifting to drip irrigation, vertical farms or simple techniques that have enormous benefits.
In the US, restaurants waste nearly as much food as all homes combined–by the time the food is on your plate, most of the damage is already done.
We actually have the tools available to make an impact. Insisting on voluntary personal action is a long, difficult road, even if someone tries to build a business around it. There are hungry people all around us, and more efficient supply chains will allocate the food we’re wasting far more efficiently.
The cultural dynamic in many places of serving more food than your guests can possibly eat–as a form of status or generosity–is persistent and wasteful. But it’s just a small part of a system that needs fixing.
The shift in our industrial systems to climate resilience is a huge opportunity. It creates efficiencies and shifts our focus away from dead-end consumption. But we need to be clear about which systems have the most leverage and work relentlessly on them.