Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of all the food we
"According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
throw away here in the United States? -- Mike Schiller, Cambridge, MA
Food waste is a huge issue in America, especially in light of the growing divide between the profligate rich and the hungry poor. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Loss Project, we throw away more than 25 percent—some 25.9 million tons—of all the food we produce for domestic sale and consumption. A 2004 University of Arizona study pegs the figure at closer to 50 percent, finding that Americans squander some $43 billion annually on wasted food. Lead researcher Timothy Jones reported that on average, U.S. households waste 14 percent of their food purchases. He estimates that a family of four tosses out $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables and grain products alone.
Once this food gets to the landfill, it then generates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within our atmosphere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.—meaning that the sandwich you made and then didn’t eat yesterday is increasing your personal—and our collective—carbon footprint.
Furthermore, researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kid¬ney Dis¬eases (NIDDK) concluded in a 2009 study that each year a quarter of U.S. water consumption and over 300 million barrels of oil (four percent of U.S. oil consumption) go into producing and distributing food that ultimately ends up in landfills. They add that pe¬r-capita food waste has in¬creased by half since 1974, and suggest that the “U.S. obesity epidemic” may be the result of a “push effect” of increased food availability and marketing to Americans unable to match their food intake with the increased supply of cheap food.
In spite of all this, environmentalists are optimistic that Americans can reduce their food waste. For one, restaurants and markets are increasingly finding outlets—including soup kitchens feeding the poor and farms looking for cheap animal feed—for food they would otherwise toss. Some communities now pick-up and centrally compost food waste from commercial and residential buildings and put the resulting nutrient-rich soil to use in municipal projects or for sale to the public. And a few enterprising cities now have waste-to-energy technologies that extract methane from landfills for use as fuel.
An extreme reaction to the food waste issue is “freeganism,” a movement of people who live on the food cast off by others. These “dumpster divers” share, in the words of movement founder Warren Oakes, “an anti-consumeristic ethic about eating” and not only avoid creating waste but live off that caused by others.
Going freegan might be a bit much for most of us, but we can all take action to minimize food waste. The University of Arizona’s Jones suggests more careful purchase planning, including devising complete menus and grocery lists, and knowing what foods are lurking in the fridge and pantry that should be used before they go bad. And don’t forget that many foods can be frozen and enjoyed later. Jones contends that if we as a nation were able to cut our food waste in half we’d extend the lifespan of landfills by decades and reduce soil depletion and the application of untold tons of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Dear EarthTalk: A fisherman friend of mine told me that trout populations in the
|Throughout America’s Rocky Mountain West, rivers and streams
are getting hotter and drier, presenting new challenges for trout
already struggling with road building, habitat fragmentation,
pollution and other man-made disturbances. Pictured: A brook
trout swims in a native stream."
Credit this image to "Eric Engbretson, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service."
Interior West of the U.S. are already shrinking due to global warming. Is this true? And what is the long term prognosis for the trout? -- Jon Klein, Portsmouth, NH
Most scientists agree that the effects of global warming are starting to show up all around the world in many forms. Throughout America’s Rocky Mountain West, rivers and streams are getting hotter and drier, presenting new challenges for trout already struggling with habitat fragmentation and pollution.
A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) found that global warming is shrinking cold-water fish habitat, threatening the trout and other fish that depend upon it. Scientists believe that the nearly five degree (F) temperature increase forecasted for the Interior West could reduce trout habitat by half in this century, sending trout populations into a tailspin.
While declines in trout population are bad for local ecosystems and biodiversity, they are also bad for people—especially sport fishers and those employed by the billion dollar recreation industry. In Colorado, sport fishing contributes $800 million to the state’s economy each year and supports 11,000 jobs. In Montana, angling generates $300 million annually. Trout fishing also brings in big dollars to New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. “Hotter temperatures are shutting down our most popular streams during the height of the fishing season,” says MTU’s Bruce Farling. “The closures are becoming an annual event when trout are stressed by warm water and low flows. The implications…are clear: fewer trout and fewer opportunities to fish.”
A U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study found that between 53 and 97 percent of natural trout populations in the Southern Appalachian region of the U.S. could disappear due to warmer temperatures predicted by global climate change models. The three species of trout in question—Brooks, Rainbows and Browns—are already barely hanging on due to road building, channelization and other man-made disturbances.
“As remaining habitat for trout becomes more fragmented, only small refuges in headwater streams at the highest levels will remain,” says biologist Patricia Flebbe of USFS’s Virginia-based Southern Research Station. “Small populations in isolated patches can be easily lost and, in a warmer climate, could simply die out,” she warns, adding that Southern Appalachia trout fishing may become “heavily managed.”
“Trout are one of the best indicators of healthy river ecosystems; they’re the aquatic version of the canary in the coalmine,” says NRDC’s Theo Spencer. “This is our wake up call that urgent action is needed today to reduce heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming.”
NRDC is calling for swift enactment of climate change legislation and for limiting logging and road building near trout streams to ensure enough shade to maintain cooler water temperatures. Also, they say, placing fallen trees and branches and boulders into rivers and streams will help provide shelter for fish and create deeper pools that collect cooler water. Keeping pesticides and fertilizers out of watersheds will also improve the quality of habitat and likelihood of survival for trout species facing an uncertain future.
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; email@example.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.