We're thinking about food waste all wrong

Matt Prescott
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In which author Matthew Prescott offers a new twist on the problem of food waste.

By Matthew Prescott

You should see my fridge—it’s not a pretty sight. Its entire contents at present? Half a pint of coffee creamer, a cup of chickpeas, two black bean burgers, a red pepper, a jar of capers, three beers, a jug of water, and a smattering of condiments. And I’m a cookbook author! I should have all kinds of delicacies in there, right? Trending ingredients at my fingertips, ready to be whipped up into some kind of Instagram-worthy spread.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to eat, and I cook nearly every day. But I no longer aspire to keep a fully stocked kitchen. Forget the Clean Plate Club, I’m with the Barren Fridge Brigade.

We Americans waste a whopping 38 billion tons of food every year. That’s equivalent to nearly 170,000 Statues of Liberty, or 19 billion Ford F-150s. The only thing more American than apple pies, it seems, is throwing them in the garbage.

With a growing population—including millions who go hungry each day, living on a planet with finite natural resources—food waste is an ethical issue. And it’s an economic problem too, with wasted food costing us an estimated $218 billion per year. That’s a lot of dough down the drain.

But what we toss into trashcans or leave uneaten at restaurants merely scratches the surface of food waste, and if that's how we think about it, we're thinking about it all wrong.

An even bigger problem is what we waste while producing the foods we eat—especially foods that come from animals.

In our food system, animals essentially function as middlemen—between the crops we grow to feed them, and the protein they produce to feed us. We funnel nearly 20 pounds of grain and other crops through an animal to produce just a single pound of meat. That‘s right. Twenty pounds in, for one pound out.

And those crops aren’t growing themselves. We’re cutting down entire rainforests to grow food…for chickens. We clear the land, sow the seeds, and use vital natural resources—like water—to grow those feed crops.

It can take over 500 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken, and more than 50 gallons to produce a single egg. A pound of pork takes 718 gallons of water to produce. Want a gallon of milk? That’ll take 2,000 gallons.

All told, this is so wasteful that a recent report produced in collaboration with the World Bank concluded even the most efficient sources of meat convert only around 11 percent of gross feed energy into human food. That means 89 percent of what goes in is wasted.

So what we do? There’s no zero-footprint food, no totally safe sustenance, ethically or environmentally speaking. Be that as it may, there’s one clear answer to these worldly woes: we can all eat more plants and less meat.

Plant-based foods are far more efficient to produce, and far less wasteful. It may take 600 gallons of water to produce a single hamburger, but only 42 gallons to produce a veggie burger.

That’s because plant-based foods cut out those middlemen—the animals—from the equation. In the same way we no longer visit video stores if we want to watch a movie at home or go to the bank to deposit a check, we no longer need animals for protein or other nutrients.

In addition to plant-based burgers and nuggets and milks and ice creams and cheeses—products packed full of protein that mimic the taste, texture and cooking methods of meat—there are all kinds of naturally delicious plant-based options: spicy lentil stew, black bean burritos, roasted eggplant and marinara sandwiches. Seasoned and prepared well, jackfruit is a delicious stand-in for BBQ pulled pork. Not to brag, but I make a mean “crab” cake from hearts of palm. Cauliflower Buffalo wings, anyone?

And we needn’t go whole hog to make a difference. Countless people are going “flexitarian” or trying Meatless Mondays, swapping in these kinds of dishes for meat at the start of each week. Others are eating smaller portions of meat, opting to make it a side dish and give vegetables top-billing. And others yet are trying one or two plant-based meals a day.

So whether in the Clean Plate Club or the Barren Fridge Brigade, there’s a surefire step we can each take to reduce food waste. Remarkably, it starts not with the food we leave on our plates at the end of a meal, but with the food we put on them in the first place.

Matthew Prescott is the author of Food Is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World. Follow on Twitter @MatthewPrescott for more.

We're thinking about food waste all wrong
In which author Matthew Prescott offers a new twist on the problem of food waste.

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