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Kate Zerrenner headshot

How Food Waste Complicates the Water-Energy Nexus

Discussions about the world's food waste problem often overlook impacts on water supplies and energy production.
By Kate Zerrenner
food waste

Food waste is a stubborn problem in the developed world. Globally, about a third of all food produced is wasted, which is about 1.3 billion tons per year. This statistic is even more staggering when considering that approximately 820 million people around the world do not have enough to eat. In the U.S. alone, experts estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the food we purchase goes to waste. Clearly, reducing food waste could benefit people directly, but it could also help to protect our water and energy supplies.

According to a study, 4.2 trillion gallons of water were used to produce that wasted food, half of it going to uneaten fruits and vegetables. Another study noted that about 10 percent of energy use in the U.S. goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food. Further, neither of these studies consider the embedded energy in water or the embedded water in energy, so taken together, those figures should be even higher.

Consumers’ expectations contribute to food waste

In the U.S., we have been conditioned to buy only pristine produce, leaving the imperfect specimens to go to waste. Supermarkets have tried to figure out how to sell “ugly” produce, but poor sales led many of those who had started such programs to quietly end them. Some farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture programs have had a little more success, possibly because expectations of perfectly formed fruit and veg are a little different when getting produce directly from a farm. But this has also ignited an entire industry around start-ups aiming to capitalize on food waste, with the side effect of taking business away from those small farms.

Food is nothing if not complicated. Some chains are trying to repurpose food that would otherwise be wasted by churning it into other products, like the United Kingdom retailer Tesco’s experiment with unsold bread. Meanwhile, a Dutch startup is converting unwanted apples and pears into a sugar substitute.

Which raises the point of a new trend that has emerged with surplus foods: upcycling. Upcycling has been a stable in the fashion and home goods world for some time, so it makes sense that it would make its way to food as well. For example, TBJ Foods is taking surplus produce and even surplus bacon and turning it into jams. Upcycling can be taken to centers to feed people quickly or, like TBJ Foods, preserved to lengthen shelf life.

We need to re-think agriculture’s relationship with water

Further, we should not have this much surplus to deal with in the first place. Agriculture is a water-intensive industry, and its problems are politically, socially and environmentally complex. Over a third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts are grown in California. Despite all its efforts on climate change, the state is already feeling the impacts, especially droughts and wildfires.

Water and agriculture continue to be highly charged issues in California. With every new drought comes new renewed calls for how the state waters its farms. The reality is that the country as a whole will likely need to rethink how we structure our agricultural system to be more sustainable under the new normal of climate change.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California’s water consumption. Rethinking how crops are irrigated as well which crops to prioritize, i.e., those requiring less water, are critical. Looking towards Israel, a country with a similar climate and that has essentially solved its water problem through a combination of policies, including drip irrigation, could provide some direction. And experts in California are already experimenting with innovative solutions on the ground – including ideas to generate power.

Food waste has an undeniable effect on water and energy

The energy footprint of food is critical to the solution also, up and down the supply chain, from the fields to the table. Increasing the deployment of renewable energy into the electric grid will help reduce water demand in the energy sector, freeing it up for other uses. Likewise, improving water efficiency and reducing water demand where possible will lower energy consumption.

Our food system is complex, as copious amounts of water and energy are required along the entire value chain. Better data is needed to fully understand the energy-water-food nexus, and with better data comes better solutions. Figuring out how we adapt to a changing climate will require rethinking how we grow our food as well as how we consume it.

Image credit: Pixabay

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner