My mother has always told me not to waste food. If I didn’t finish what was on my plate when I was younger, she would joke that my eyes were bigger than my stomach and remind me that I needed to learn to serve the amount of food that I would be able to finish. When my friends joined my family for dinner, they would receive the same message. I realized much later, that through what felt like meaningless nagging, my mom was encouraging me to recognize – at the very least from a humanitarian perspective – that wasting food is wrong. I remember her taking my sister and I to Mama Ngina’s Children Home to show us upfront that not every child has the luxury of throwing away food with the certainty that they will be able to eat the next day.
As a college student, I’ve recently woken up to the economic cost of food waste. Though I always understood that wasting food was ultimately a waste of money, because I purchase quite literally everything I eat with my own budget nowadays, whatever food I end up wasting ultimately feels like a greater loss. Needless to say, this has forced me to be more conscious about how I grocery shop. I’ve found that it’s better for me to buy groceries infrequently than in bulk because the more groceries I get, the more likely I am to forget about them as they rot away in my fridge. Re-reading that sentence, it sounds pretty ridiculous, but it’s an unfortunately reality, especially when it comes to fresh produce.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Professor David Kanter – an expert on nitrogen pollution, food security, and sustainable development – about an additional issue we should undoubtedly be considering when we talk about food waste: nitrogen pollution. He explained that nitrogen plays a fundamental role in food production because unlike many of the chemicals that contribute to the myriad of environmental issues we are facing, it is an essential resource. Without nitrogen, we wouldn’t have photosynthesis and therefore, would fail to grow crops and sustain the livestock production we heavily rely on to feed our ever-increasing population.
Nitrogen’s service to agriculture, while highly beneficial, comes at a significant cost. Because of its unique chemistry, nitrogen can travel between chemical compounds, taking on a number of different forms in what is referred to as the nitrogen cascade. Simply put, “a single atom of nitrogen can start as fertilizer, contribute to air pollution as ammonia, contribute to water pollution as nitrate, and then get transformed again to nitrous oxide (N2O), which is the third most important greenhouse gas and an ozone depletor.” This becomes all the more consequential when you think about how much nitrogen is used to produce some of the foods you frequently consume and possibly waste.
Professor Kanter emphasized the fact that some foods have a higher nitrogen footprint than others, crowning beef as “probably the most nitrogen inefficient food that we can produce”. He elaborated on this inefficiency, sharing that “if you start with 100 atoms of nitrogen, once you actually get to the steak on your plate, there are only 3 atoms left. With crops, you get about 40-50 atoms out.” While this is a significant improvement in comparison to beef, it is still shockingly inefficient. This widespread inefficiency ends up contributing to a multitude of environmental issues through the nitrogen cascade. When you consider the quantity of food we waste globally (1.6 billion tons, over 80% of which is perfectly edible) or better yet, nationally (half of the food purchased in U.S supermarkets), it becomes undeniably clear that there is little awareness of the costly inputs that go into food production.
I imagine that no matter how old I am the sheer immensity of food waste will continue to astound me, but as I mature, I hope to better understand the magnitude of the damage I am contributing to when I waste food. Towards the end of our conversation, Professor Kanter commented that “there is a lot to be said to either buying or consuming fresh food quickly, trying to be a bit more conscientious about how much food you might consume in a week.” Whether you’re looking at food waste from a humanitarian, economic, or environmental perspective, I highly encourage you to be more mindful of what it takes to bring food from the farm gate to your dinner plate and consequently, what it costs to throw it away.