Overeating Is Really Terrible for the Planet

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Scientists calculated the ecological impact of food wasted from eating more than necessary – the numbers are staggering.

Food waste has become a very hot topic, and with good reason. If food waste were a country, it would rank third – following the US and China – for impact on climate change. Chad Frischmann, the vice president and research director at Project Drawdown, says that "Reducing food waste is one of the most important things we can do to reverse global warming."

When we talk about food waste, we usually talk about food that is wasted at any point during its life from the field to a consumer's trash can. It is an embarrassingly stupid problem, one that reeks of privilege. The UN notes that every year, rich countries waste as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

But now researchers in Italy have added an extra twist to the idea of food waste: What is the impact of food wasted through overconsumption?

We know that eating too much is bad for human health, but is it bad for the planet as well? The answer is a resounding "yes." The scientists write, "Our position is that food eaten above physiological needs, manifesting as obesity, should be considered as waste."

And the research, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, suggests that direct food waste – food thrown away or lost from field to fork – is nothing compared to food wasted through eating excess calories.

The authors note that over the past decade, the obesity burden in western and developing countries has more than doubled: The WHO estimates that more than 1.9 billion adults and 41 million children under the age of five are overweight or obese. They write, "Since 1974 the energy content of diet has increased 50%, reaching more than 1,400 kcal per person per day or 150 trillion per year. In this view, obesity condition represents a considerable cost for the environment."

WIth this in mind, they created a new index, called Metabolic Food Waste, to calculate the ecological impact of obesity – it measures the amount of food leading to excess body fat and its impact on the environment expressed as carbon, water, and land footprint.

They looked at data from the seven FAO world regions – Europe, North America and Oceania, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Industrialized Asia, North Africa, West and Central Asia, and South and Southeast Asia – and estimated the net excess body weight of each country's population – based on BMI and height records – and distributed its energy content among foods groups according to national availability.

What they found is that the overall impact of Metabolic Food Waste associated with overweight and obesity in the world is 140.7 gigatons of food waste, with Europe and North America/Oceania leading the charge with the highest ecological impact for water, land and carbon footprints.

"Excess bodyweight corresponds to roughly 140 billion tonnes of food waste globally," reports group lead Prof. Mauro Serafini, of the University of Teramo.

This is astronomically higher than current annual direct food waste, which is estimated at 1.3 billion tonnes.

As explained in Frontiers Science News, "growing the world's metabolic food waste would be expected to generate the equivalent of 240 billion tonnes of CO2. This is roughly the amount mankind released burning fossil fuels over the last seven years combined."

The study's authors assert that they provide evidence, at world level, "of the enormous amount of food lost through obesity and its ecological impact." Noting that animal products were the highest contributor to MFW, they explain that large epidemiological studies are needed in order to clearly identify major dietary contributors to MFW.

In conclusion, they write, "Reducing metabolic food waste associated with obesity will contribute to reducing the ecological impact of unbalanced dietary patterns through an improvement of human health." With the authors' suggestion that "the worldwide obesity epidemic has been the result of a 'push effect' of increased food availability and marketing," it all adds to more evidence of a very broken food system. The food industry needs to be more accountable; they're not just killing us, they're ruining the planet as well.

The study, "Unsustainability of Obesity: Metabolic Food Waste," can be read here.