How can cooks reduce climate change? We can have the most impact by focusing on the types of food that are wasted the most and that produce the most greenhouse gases. Most efforts look at one or the other of these factors. Some even downplay the amount of energy-intense animal products wasted by splitting the categories and printing labels upside down or sideways. (NRDC, I’m looking at you.) My Food Waste Effect makes it easier to see how your food choices affect the planet. The Food Waste Effect multiplies two factors:
- How much of a certain category of food is typically wasted, as shown in chart 1 below
- The full life cycle greenhouse gas emissions for a food, including production, processing, transportation, cooking, and disposal
This is like knowing the difference between a dime, a quarter, and a twenty-dollar bill when you drop your change at the store. Let’s go after the high-value stuff first. In the case of food, doing this will be good for your health and budget and good for the planet too. Finally, see why it’s greener to compost the scraps you do instead of sending them to a landfill.
Chart 1: Wasted Food by Category
This chart shows total food losses in households, retail, and food service, from eggs at 2% to fresh fruits and vegetables at 22%. (Source: Journal of Consumer Affairs.) Plant products make up 44% of the food wasted, animal products 39%, and sweeteners, fats, and oils make up the rest. You might be tempted by this chart to switch from fresh produce to canned or frozen. Please don’t until you check the next chart.
Chart 2: the Food Waste Effect
The Food Waste Effect chart shows the percentage of food wasted in each category as shown in chart 1 above times the full life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for a food. (Source: Meat-Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health by the Environmental Working Group.)
It shows that the most effective way to reduce food waste is to focus on lamb, beef, cheese, pork, and salmon. Either don’t buy these products at all or make sure to use what little you do buy. Even small scraps from a restaurant meal are worth bringing home to use as a garnish or flavoring if they replace meat you otherwise would have purchased.
I’m glad to see that foods I eat nearly every day are at the top of the list: dried beans, peanut butter, and tomatoes. These are all wildly affordable and healthy too.
Eggs have the lowest Food Waste Effect score because only 2% are wasted and industrial egg facilities are brutally efficient. The crowded hens are often fed the by-products from other operations, including “meal” made from feathers, bone, blood, or fish. Despite the low score, I don’t recommend eating eggs for health reasons and out of concern for the chickens, including male chicks who are killed shortly after they hatch. If you do eat eggs, please get them from backyard chickens or from pastured chickens who live on an integrated sustainable farm. Milk also has a relatively low FWE score but raises similar concerns.
Compost your Food Scraps if You Can
Of course, all the energy used to produce wasted food is wasted.
- In a well-managed compost pile, scraps break down in the presence of oxygen. The products are compost, a valuable soil enhancer, and the relatively weak greenhouse gas CO2.
- In landfills, scraps break down without oxygen, producing methane. This greenhouse gas has 40 times the impact of CO2.
- Scraps available to wild animals, birds, and fishes can shift the balance of their communities, subsidizing predators and speeding the decline of other species.