Growing and producing different foods uses resources directly at the farming and agricultural stage, as well as wasting these resources when food is uneaten, thrown out or generally not used/consumed at the consumer stage.
In this guide, we outline the foods that waste the most resources via consumer level food waste – resources such as cropland, irrigated water, pesticides and fertilizers.
This guide is based on a 2018 study (it has been broken down and paraphrased here), which you can view in full here (journals.plos.org).
This study is based on US numbers and data.
Summary – Foods That Waste The Most Resources
Uneaten food or food thrown out at the consumer level indirectly wastes resources (cropland, fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation water) that are used during food production/agriculture
There’s generally two types of food diets that were assessed for this study – a more healthier diet composed mostly of plant based foods like vegetables and fruits, and a more “Western diet”, characterized by high intake of refined carbohydrates, added sugar, sodium, and animal products (and low intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains)
Higher quality diets (that are more plant based) were associated with greater amounts of food waste at the consumer level, and also greater amounts of wasted irrigation water and wasted pesticide chemicals at the production level
A more Western diet heavier in animal products was associated with more cropland waste and more fertilizer waste (nitrogen, phosphorus and potash fertiliser applied to animal feed) at the production level
Food waste numbers for the study were – Fruits and vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes accounted for 39% of food waste, followed by dairy (17%), meat and mixed meat dishes (14%), and grains and grain mixed dishes (12%).
Remaining foods and dishes each accounted for less than 10% of total food waste: other foods and dishes (mostly candy, soft drinks, and other beverages), salty snacks, soup, potatoes and mixed potato dishes, nuts and seeds, Mexican dishes, eggs and mixed egg dishes, and table oils and salad dressing.
Wasted foods may also have an environmental impact, with methane gas from rotting/decomposing food in landfills being just one one example, and plastic packaging waste being another. Some sources also indicate that food waste contributes to 300 million barrels of waste oil every year too
Animal product foods waste the most cropland.
A lot of this is due to the land required to grow feed such as hay for livestock.
Cropland is different to grazing land – cropland is more fertile for growing fruits and vegetables, and less abundant than grazing or pastureland.
Some numbers on wasted cropland are:
Annually, wasted food was grown on the equivalent of over 30 million acres of cropland, representing 7.7% of all harvested cropland in the US.
Hay (8.9 million acres) and feed grains and oilseeds (7.7 million acres) accounted for over half (56%) of all cropland used to produce wasted food.
Over 60% of land used to grow fruit was wasted, followed by vegetables (56%), and sweeteners (30%).
Cropland categories with the lowest proportion of waste were nuts (2.3%) and legumes (2.5%).
Wasted Irrigated Water
Healthier plant based food like fruits and vegetables waste the most irrigated water.
Wasting irrigated water is more of a sustainability issue because it involves wasting freshwater reserves – especially when it comes from slow-to-recharge ground water resources that can be easily depleted.
Rain fed crops and food might be less of a sustainability issue.
Some number on wasted irrigated water are:
Nearly 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water were applied to cropland that was used to produce uneaten food.
The majority of wasted irrigation water was applied to cropland used to produce fruits (1.3 trillion gallons), vegetables (1.05 trillion gallons), and hay (1.01 trillion gallons).
Production of fruits and vegetables wasted in high proportions [and they are compared to other food types at the consumer level] carries environmental burdens … particularly due to relatively high rates of pesticide use and irrigation [at the production level].
Higher quality diets contained greater amounts of fruits and vegetables … [and they] have higher agricultural input needs (per unit of land area) than most other crops
Pesticides can cause all sorts of environmental, wildlife and humans issues during and after application.
Healthier plant based diets are more responsible for wasted pesticides.
Some number on wasted pesticides are:
Nearly 780 million pounds (759–797 million pounds) of pesticides were applied to wasted cropland, mostly to cropland used to produce fruit (337 million pounds), feed grains and oilseeds (158 million pounds), and vegetables (133 million pounds).
Fertilizers are also responsible for environmental and wildlife issues.
They can leach into soil, water and even cause different air pollution issues.
Feed and grains grown for livestock is mostly responsible for wasted fertilizer.
Some number on wasted fertilizers are:
Approximately 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, 1.5 billion pounds of phosphorus fertilizer, and 2.3 billion pounds of potash fertilizer were applied to wasted cropland, largely attributable to cropland used to produce feed grains and oilseeds and hay.
1. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one, 13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405