The Shocking Impact Of Not Finishing Your Dinner

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Two different apples, fresh and withered
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” —Albert Einstein

In A Nutshell

Food waste is one of those things that we tend not to think too much about. We scrape our leftovers into the bin, we throw away that fruit that’s gone bad, and we toss the bread that’s gotten moldy. But food waste is a problem that’s much larger than most people realize. Recent studies show that between 30 and 40 percent of the food that the United States produces is wasted, and every year, the world throws out about $750 billion in food. Adding insult to injury for the estimated 870 million people in the world who are starving, the rest of us are wasting, on average, about 1,249 calories per day.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all been there. What’s on our dinner plate isn’t the least bit appetizing, and frankly, we think we’ll give this one a pass. It’s not that long until breakfast tomorrow morning, and it’s only a plate of food, right?

It turns out that all the moms and dad that insist you sit there and finish what’s put in front of you are right for more reasons than they might suspect.

If they bring up those poor, starving kids on the other side of the world, consider that every year, wasted food amounts to about $750 billion.

That’s in the face of the estimated 870 million people who really are starving—the rest of the world is wasting about a third of all the food that’s produced. In the United States alone, anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the post-harvest food supply ends up in the trash, and that comes out to a daily average of about 1,249 calories’ worth of garbage food per US citizen.

That’s not just on the shoulders of kids turning their nose up at dinner. That’s also food that’s thrown away in the home as well as production facility waste, restaurant trash, and food thrown away by grocery stores.

Some other staggering numbers?

Every year, about 1.4 billion hectares of land is used to produce food that’s then wasted. Because a number that big tends to be difficult to visualize, that’s more than 25 percent of all the world’s agricultural land. It’s also the equivalent of 200 Irelands. That land waste is an even bigger problem when you look at how much land is cleared for farmland, how many species are encroached upon, and how many plants and animals are endangered because of a loss of habitat. That’s just land—the water that’s used to produce wasted food is three times the volume of Lake Geneva, or three times what flows through the Volga River. In other words, about 35 percent of our freshwater consumption is thrown in the bin.

Also used up for waste food production is about 30 percent of all fertilizers applied to agricultural land, which has a significant impact on our environment as well.

And if you think that food waste isn’t just a big deal when it comes to cluttering up the environment, all that we’re throwing away is dumping about 3.3 billion tons of greenhouses gases right into our already overloaded atmosphere.

We’ve been picking on the United States, but researchers from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found they’re definitely not the only ones to blame. Food waste is also incredibly high in Asia, especially when it comes to cereals and grains. Not surprisingly, high-income areas (and families) are the worst offenders, with Latin America also being extraordinarily bad when it comes to meat waste.

The UN studies tracked where most of the food waste was happening, and major culprits include what’s thrown away in the preparation process between harvest and grocery. When it comes to what you throw away in your homes, the average is about 9.2 percent of your annual food budget.

Solutions put forward include education (especially when it comes to consumer opinions about “sell by” dates and what they really mean) and options for different types of packaging in resealable containers and smaller portions. But the major one is a shift in attitudes. Much of the problem comes from a regular pattern researchers saw when asking why so much food is thrown away, with many people answering that they simply want food that’s fresher. Throwing out food that isn’t bad, but isn’t deemed acceptably fresh is part of a huge problem that’s crippling the world’s food supply and resources, and it puts the practice of not cleaning your plate in a whole new perspective.

Show Me The Proof

PLOS One: Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors
United Nations Environment Programme: Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity

  • Joseph

    That was a great article. Next time I’ll send my half eaten food to a random address in africa so it’s not wasted. I’ll also send my food that’s passed the sell by date. It’ll be rotten by the time it gets there anyway.

    • Lupus

      Please double check the country within Africa, some places the post office is useless

  • sithishs

    Good article. Being the son of immigrants, I find on average Americans are so incredibly wasteful with food. It’s all about upbringing I suspect. I know people who claim to “refuse” to eat leftovers. The notion is ludicrous.