President's Letter: Food and Consequences

Carter Roberts headshot

“What I worry about is simple... running out of planet.”

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

When my son Christian was a junior in high school, he conducted an experiment to test his hypothesis about reducing food waste: If meals were offered on smaller plates, people would waste less food.

The experiment: 24 classmates served themselves lunch—half on school-standard nine-inch plates and half on smaller (six-inch) plates. Christian then compared how much food each group wasted. The results were staggering. On average, those using the larger plates wasted 7.2 times as much food as did students using the smaller plates.

Every decision we make—where to work and live, what to eat, who to vote for—affects something else. And of all the decisions we make, few are more consequential than our decisions about food: How we produce food, how we purchase food, what food we eat—and how we waste food.

Globally, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year—enough to feed 3 billion people, or more than three times the number of people malnourished globally. But how food is wasted, and by whom, varies. And while we know we need better data in this area, the best approximations tell a compelling story.

In the United States, we waste approximately 40% of our total food supply. Of that amount, the vast majority (83%) is wasted by consumers in hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and homes. Around 16% is lost on farms due to issues like labor shortages or cosmetic imperfection.

In other areas of the world the opposite is true. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s estimated that as much as 37% of food grown is lost or wasted. Of that amount, the consumer waste is only around 18%. But research shows higher loss rates—an estimated 76%—on farms and in post-harvest handling. It is lost to pests for lack of effective storage containers; spoiled for lack of refrigeration; or doesn’t make it to market for lack of roads and basic infrastructure.

The implications are staggering. The food that is wasted annually represents 3.3 billion tons of carbon emissions—which could represent 10% or more of global greenhouse gas emissions; 66 trillion gallons of water—estimated to be 20%-30% of all the available freshwater in the world; and 5.4 million square miles of land—or an estimated 28% of the world’s agricultural area, impacting wildlife habitat, the global climate, and more.

When I speak at schools, people ask me what I worry about most: Climate change? Species loss? Habitat destruction? I worry about all those issues. But what I worry about most is simple—I worry about running out of planet.

Because by 2050 the global population will reach 9 billion. Demand for food will double. And that demand will need to be satisfied by the available resources of our finite planet. Make no mistake: The population may be growing, but Earth is not. We must make do with what is already here.

We can solve this problem. We can increase the demand for and supply of sustainably produced food. We can improve the efficacy of food production. We can increase consumer awareness of the changes we can make: use smaller plates, buy only what’s needed, compost. And if we work together, we can provide enough food for everyone by 2050 on roughly the same amount of land we use now.

We have great partners helping us—from the CARE-WWF partnership that supports rural farmers to the Collaboration for Food and Agriculture, a global partnership rethinking financial and other systems that undergird food production. And we’re proud to work with The Rockefeller Foundation, Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste initiative, the hospitality industry, and school systems to test food-waste prevention strategies that hopefully can tip those kinds of institutions to better practices.

Few areas have more potential to make more of a difference than the work we’re doing on food waste. It will not be easy. It will require new technologies, policies, and incentives, and changes in behavior on the part of institutions and families. But the possibilities are endless, and the consequences will be vast.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues