How does food affect the environment?
According to the UN, around 1.3 billion tonnes (2,866,009,408,403 pounds) of food is tossed every year around the world. What’s worse is the United States alone produces about 133,000,000,000 pounds of that edible food waste 1 https://www.unenvironment.org/regions/north-america/regional-initiatives/minimizing-food-waste . While all this food waste happens, one in nine people on this planet do not have enough to eat each day. Food is often thrown out by retailers (grocery stores and super markets) just because its not perfectly shaped or colored and retailers often purchase more stock (the food) than they know they will sell in order to create the appearance of abundance, all resulting in perfectly edible food going to waste for no reason other than aesthetics and vanity. This also means that food is wasted even before it hits your plate. In fact, over 50% of food waste happens before you put your groceries in your cart. The problem with all this food waste isn’t just because it fills our landfills with food that could feed the hungry, but food waste in landfills creates vast amounts of methane gas, a greenhouse gas, that contributes to climate change 2 https://www.moveforhunger.org/the-environmental-impact-of-food-waste/ .
Supermarkets and chain grocers often rely on and over-use plastic packaging for things such a produce, baked goods, meats, dairy products, beverages, etc. All of which can be avoided by either foregoing packaging completely or using paper-based, glass, metal, or a plant-based alternative for the packaging. This unnecessary plastic packaging, which rarely gets recycled, ends up polluting our waterways and oceans, forests, cities, and neighborhoods and ends up killing animals and ecosystems along the way.
Commercial food travels approximately 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate, whereas local food may only travel around 50 miles 3 https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/how_far_did_your_food_travel_to_get_to_you . Not only that, but more energy is needed during transportation to refrigerate the transported food. Producing gas using fossils fuels and the emissions that are released by vehicles using gas are a large contributor to carbon emissions and climate change, resulting in more natural disasters, worse human, animal, and environmental health, and the destruction and loss of natural resources and habitats.
Commercial produce is often teeming with pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, rodenticide, nemacide, molluscicide and fertilizer residue, which can be absorbed in the body even after washing, negatively impacting your health. Although these chemicals have greatly benefited some agriculture and public health efforts, there have been many unfortunate side effects of using these chemicals in agricultural practices that have been discovered throughout recent history. Organochlorine (OC) based insecticides in particular, have been shown to “pollute the tissues of virtually every life form on the earth, the air, the lakes and the oceans, the fishes that live in them and the birds that feed on the fishes” 4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984095/ .
Many pesticides contain compounds that behave as endocrine disruptions in the system, reeking havoc on hormone levels, the immune system, the reproductive system, the brain, and our risk of cancer. In the environment, these chemicals have killed off populations of species, disrupted reproductive functions of animals, polluted waterways and soil, and reduced populations of beneficial species like bees 5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984095/ .
What can you do to make a difference?
- Buy local, family owned, and at farmers markets
- Avoid plastic
- Bring your own bags and containers
- Watch your portion sizes and eat your left overs
- Reduce your consumption of animal products
- Buy fresh and look for bulk
- Make your own meals and ingredients
- Compost and/or reuse food scraps
- Contact the companies you shop at and advocate for environmentally sustainable changes
- Where does your food come from?
- How is your food made/produced/processed/grown?
- Is your food packaged? If so, how?
- How is your food or its packaging disposed of? Can it be composted? Recycled? Or does it go to a landfill?
- What are the ingredients in your food? Do you know what they all are?
Alane Ertel is a graduate from the MPH program at the University of North Florida, and was an Intern at their Environmental Center during the creation of this project. Alane’s goal in creating this project is to increase awareness of environmental issues, spread zero/low waste practices, and improve environmental and human health by utilizing her passions for the environment and for creating a healthier society.