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How much food do we really waste? And why does it matter?

It’s extremely difficult to accurately calculate food waste. You’ve got the waste at the farm, waste during processing, waste during transportation, waste during distribution, and waste by consumers. And what counts as “waste?" Does it include stems or leaves that we could eat but often toss out? Does it include crops that die before harvest? Does it include the extra calories we consume that we don’t need?

So, as you might expect, estimates of food waste are wide ranging. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently put out a report claiming America wastes 40 percent of its food. By its calculations, a family of four will throw away more than $2,000 worth of food a year. That’s a whole lot of spoiled peaches and leftover enchiladas. 

The NRDC estimate is higher than other numbers out there.  In an often cited study from 1995, the USDA calculated about 27 percent of edible food gets tossed in the trash by stores, restaurants and consumers.

Global numbers are equally difficult to pin down.  The U.N. estimates about a third of all the food produced for people is wasted.  That’s 1.3 billion tons of food a year. It finds that, in high-income countries, much of the food is tossed out once food gets to the consumers -- when we go out to dinner and don’t finish our plate or when we buy too much lettuce and let it get slimy in the fridge. In poorer countries, food is wasted earlier in the supply chain -- on farms and during transportation to market. 

The accuracy of all of these numbers is debatable. I spoke to a researcher named Tom Reardon who has studied the food supply chain in large Asian cities. He doesn’t come close to finding the amount of waste many of these international studies claim. He thinks waste in these areas is closer to 6 percent to 7 percent. No farmer, he says, can afford to let a large part of his crop be ruined before it gets to market. Reardon has also found waste numbers have improved as roads get better, producers have more access to mobile phones, and the food market  consolidates.

So will a reduction in food waste really help us feed 9 billion?

It’ll definitely help. In some parts of the world (like here in the U.S.) we buy and throw out way more food than we need -- at the same time others here are going hungry.  In other parts of the world, it’s possible that food waste isn’t the problem it’s made out to be. But still, less food in the trash means more land and water and resources can be used to feed more people. 

Follow Adriene Hill at @adrienehill