The Perfect Potato: Food Waste in North America


Every year, approximately 50% of all the food in North America goes to waste. This amounts to millions of tons per year. Appallingly, much of this waste is over concerns of aesthetics.

Producers estimate that between 25% and 40% of all produce is rejected merely for failing to meet a standard set for appearance. Knobby potatoes, skinny carrots, forked carrots, apples that aren’t red enough, or, oddly, apples that are too red, along with a host of other criteria, contribute to the millions of tons of perfectly edible food that ends up in the landfill every year.

Stores and supermarkets maintain that consumers won’t buy odd-looking produce. However, most consumers really don’t care about these aesthetic standards. During a recent potato crop failure in the UK, potatoes that wouldn’t have made the grade were sold, and no one raised an eyebrow, nor did stores see a drop in sales.

While aesthetics may be the most worrisome of the reason to waste food, there are more. The average household wastes nearly 15% of the food it purchases. Sometimes the food sits around long enough that it goes bad, some falls victim to picky eaters refusing to eat, and some more is scooped up onto a plate, but never eaten. Or simply failing to bring home leftovers from a restaurant.

Restaurants are infamous for this, in fact. Restaurant portions tend to be enormous, far more than what almost any person, can, or should, eat in a meal. Some of this gets eaten when it shouldn’t, sometimes it gets shared, but most simply goes into the restaurant’s dumpster. A typical restaurant meal is between 1000 and 1500 calories, while a healthy, moderately active adult should get around 2000 calories in a day.

Not only is the food wasted, but all the time and effort that went into that food production is discarded as well, which equals money. The fuel the harvesters use, not to mention the trucks that transport it, which contribute to greenhouse gases, smog, and acid rain. The trees and plastics used to produce packaging are wasted, as is the energy used to process the food.

Beyond the issue of wasting that much food while people elsewhere in the world go hungry, the disposal of this waste has economic and environmental consequences. It costs money to truck all this stuff to a landfill and bury it. The trucks produce greenhouse gases, ground-level ozone, and a host of particulates. And then there is the landfill itself.

The food goes into the landfill, where it is buried. And then it rots. Rotting produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and landfills account for 38% of all methane produced my humans, including industry and agriculture. In some places, like Germany, they are acting to harvest the methane as a commercial resource.

Food wastage is not a problem that is likely to go away any time soon. Food is, quite simply too cheap for people to apply a value to it. It’s essentially worthless.

At least in North America. About 6% of household income goes to food purchases in North America, versus 75% in places like Pakistan.

Time and education will help, but it may just be that food has to get a lot more expensive before we start taking it seriously.

Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.