All food waste is not equally wasteful. The type of food that is wasted has a big influence on the amount of negative environmental impacts associated with that waste.
In a time when we're struggling to figure out how we're going to feed everyone in the face of a changing climate, severe droughts, and increasingly scarce freshwater resources, the news that we currently waste about a third of all the food produced in the US should be cause for serious concern. And while all wasted food has a lot of other embodied waste associated with it, such as the water and energy inputs necessary to produce it, wasted meat products are inherently more wasteful than wasted fruit and vegetables, according to some new research out of the University of Missouri.
This may be a bit of 'news of the obvious' to those involved in food system issues, but for the average person who doesn't necessarily connect the dots between their food and the other resources that go into producing it, it may come as a bit of a surprise that meat waste is the worst waste when it comes to food. While less meat gets wasted than does fruit and vegetables, the amount of energy required to produce meat is "significantly" more than that for plant-based food production, which means that the associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from meat production is also much higher, leading researchers to indicate that meat waste has a "greater negative environmental impact."
"While many of us are concerned about food waste, we also need to consider the resources that are wasted when we throw away edible food. Farm equipment used to feed and maintain livestock and plant and harvest crops uses a lot of diesel fuel and other utilities from fossil fuels. When people waste meat, these fuels, as well as fertilizers, are also wasted. Based on our study, we recommend that people and institutions be more conscious of not only the amount but the types of food being wasted." - Christine Costello, assistant research professor and co-author of the study
Researchers at the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources collected both pre- and post-consumer food waste from four "all-you-care-to-eat" dining facilities at the university during several months of 2014, and then created an inventory of the various types of food waste. The researchers divided the food waste into three categories - meat, vegetables, and starches - and then further categorized them as being either still edible or inedible (such as fruit and vegetable peels or ends).
The team then calculated the estimated GHG emissions associated with the three different types of foods from 'cradle to gate', which are primarily due to the farm's diesel fuel and fertilizer use, and found that the meat and protein category "represents the largest embodiment of GHG emissions" in both pre- and post-consumer food waste, despite ranking being the smallest category by total weight.
"Beef represents the largest contribution to post-consumer GHG emissions embodied in food waste..."
In light of these findings, the recommendations from the authors of the study are rather straightforward, and call for consumers to pay special attention to avoiding waste when buying and preparing meat products, and to minimize the negative environmental impacts of wasted food, "if consumers choose to prepare extra food ‘just in case,’ they should use plant-based foods."
The researchers have published their findings in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems as “Food waste in campus dining operations: Inventory of pre- and post-consumer mass by food category, and estimation of embodied greenhouse gas emissions."