Our global food system is near collapse with the weight of our food waste being produced every single year. About one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted every year, and the US alone wastes as much as 40% of its food, in Ireland one million tonnes of food are thrown out by consumers and businesses in every year . More food ends up in  landfills and incinerators than any other single material.

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While many people have undertaken well-meaning efforts to fight food waste, from eating ‘ugly produce’ to upcycling waste into meals, (Tesco become the first Irish retailer to announce a commitment to working with growers to purchase more of this crop. Named ‘Wonky Veg’ as seen below). But in order to effectively deal with the problem, we have to consider a critical piece of information about our food system: Not all food waste is created equal.

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Tesco’s ‘Wonky Veg’ campaign, launched in 2016


Most conversations about food waste turn to weight as a possible solution, citing statistics about the tonnes of food that go to the dump every year. But weight doesn’t take into account of any of the negative inputs or outputs from the life cycle of food production. It treats one pound of broccoli the same as one pound of red meat, which we all need to understand that they are not.

In fact, meat uses up far more energy and resources. Consider water. It takes about 34 gallons of water to grow one pound of broccoli, whereas it takes 1,847 gallons of water to grow one pound of beef. That’s about 54 times more water for the same one pound of food. It turns out that all of the different costs of food waste, whether measured in terms of water, the economy, the environment, or animal welfare, vary greatly by the type of food that is being tossed in the rubbish.

The best way to identify carbon-intensive foods is determining whether the product is high up on food chain. In other words: Is it animal-based?

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Chart identifying the carbon footprint of each food group

Although a higher percentage of fruits, vegetables, and grains are wasted every year, roughly 20% of meat and dairy and 35% of fish is wasted globally. Considering the total number of animals consumed every year around the world, those percentages represent millions of individual lives. Strategies to reduce animal-based food waste could then not only prevent a lot of environmental damage, but also ensure that fewer animals are killed in the long run.

To fight food waste effectively, we need an entirely new framework—one that focuses on the types of foods that are wasted, instead of just the amount wasted.
Not so long ago many sustainability advocates concentrated on eating locally as a strategy to minimise one’s “foodprint.” Today, we’ve come to understand that measuring the environmental impact of one’s food by its travel mileage is far too simplistic. Transportation accounts for only one tenth of our foodprint, whereas production accounts for over 80%. It turns out that what we eat matters more than where it comes from—and what we waste matters more than how much we throw it out.

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