Gleaning has huge social and environmental benefits.  The social impacts of gleaning are relatively intuitive – we are all aware that many people struggle with food insecurity and that access to nutritious fruits and vegetables is extremely important for people who are experiencing hunger – but the environmental implications of gleaning are less widely known.  Understanding the environmental impact of food waste helps us better comprehend the full impact of Glean Kentucky’s work.

Experts estimate that around a third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide goes to waste (“Food Waste FAQs”).  The amount of fruits and vegetables that go to waste is even higher, largely due to the fact that produce spoils more quickly than nonperishable foods.  All of the land, water, energy, and other resources that go into producing wasted food are also wasted.  This contributes to habitat loss and climate change.  Because so much of the food that we produce goes to waste, we dedicate much more land to agriculture than we actually need to meet our needs.  One study found that between 18 and 28% of the cropland in the United States is used to grow food that is ultimately wasted (Gunders 13).  That wasted land equates to a lot of biodiversity and habitat loss.  Overapplication of fertilizers on farmland that produces wasted food leads to nutrient imbalances in waterways, which can cause algae blooms and eventually dead zones in aquatic environments (“Hypoxia”).  Additionally, excessive water use for irrigating crops puts a strain on water supplies and contributes to desertification.  Furthermore, food waste contributes to climate change when it breaks down in landfills.  When food decomposes, methane and carbon dioxide – two potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change – are released (“Basic Information About Landfill Gas”). 

Fruits and vegetables that are safe to eat but cosmetically imperfect, like this “ugly” bell pepper, often go to waste.

There are many more ways that food waste harms the environment.  Consider all of the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and storing food and you can get a sense of how impactful food waste is.  When the amount of food waste is compared to the number of people who struggle to get enough to eat, the issue is especially problematic. Thankfully, a solution to both problems exists – that’s where Glean Kentucky’s work comes into play. Our volunteers connect produce that would otherwise go to waste from farms, orchards, gardens, and grocery stores with feeding agencies that can quickly distribute that produce to people in need. There is so much more work we can do to reduce food waste and food insecurity, but our gleaning program is a great place to start!

Sources

“Basic Information About Landfill Gas.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Mar. 2021, https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas.

“Food Waste FAQs.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20food,percent%20of%20the%20food%20supply. Accessed 5 May 2021.

Gunders, Dana. “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up To 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” National Resources Defense Council, Aug. 2017, https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf.

“Hypoxia.”  National Ocean Service, 26 Feb. 2021, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hypoxia/