Tuesday, October 26

A UA investigation warns about the high environmental cost of throwing vegetables into the trash

Tomato harvest on a farm in the Vega Baja.

Tomato harvest on a farm in the Vega Baja.

Researchers from Multidisciplinary Institute for the Study of the Environment “Ramón Margalef” (IMEM) from the University of Alicante have just published an article in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Food on the environmental cost of throwing away vegetables. Although this practice is common, legal, and is even subsidized by the European Union, getting rid of products such as tomatoes, zucchini or cucumbers entails significant losses of water, fertilizers and energy. As explained by the main author of the article and researcher at the University of Alicante Jaime Martínez Valderrama, “In 2019, only in the Almeria province, 300,000 m3 of water were wasted, more than 136 tons of fertilizers, and the emission of 7,500 tons of CO2 equivalent could have been avoided ”.

The article focuses on one of the most arid areas of Europe, Almeria. In this province, in the last 40 years, there has been an unprecedented agricultural development that places it at the head of national economies. “This economic growth has a very high environmental cost in a place where the level of the aquifers has dropped and they have become salinized as a result of marine intrusion,” warns the UA researcher. “We decided to analyze the province of Almería in detail because in a place that boasts of taking advantage of every last drop of water, and given the context of water scarcity that it presents, it is grotesque to get rid of part of the harvest,” he adds.

In this sense, the research group of the University of Alicante The study shows the amount of resources that are wasted to produce food that does not even enter the commercial circuit and ends up in the garbage. “It is important to clarify that not all these vegetables go directly to the garbage and a relevant part goes to food banks or is used to feed livestock”, highlights Jaime Martínez Valderrama.


The methodology used by the UA researchers to carry out this work has consisted of calculations that use technical coefficients and the quantities of product withdrawn according to data collected by the Spanish Agrarian Guarantee Fund (FEGA). As Jaime Martínez Valderrama explains, “knowing the annual amount that has been withdrawn from a crop, it is easy to calculate how much water has been wasted through the cubic meters needed to produce one ton. In the same way, we have proceeded to calculate the amount of fertilizers and the equivalent CO2 emissions that could have been avoided ”. The team of experts has made these calculations for the main vegetables produced in the province of Almería: tomato, cucumber, zucchini, aubergine and pepper.

114,000 tons

The data on the crop discarded for all of Spain provided by FEGA are about 114,000 tons, including all kinds of crops, among which citrus fruits stand out. “In other words, Almería only represents 10%. Furthermore, in Spain, a good part of the withdrawn harvest goes to food banks, some 78,000 tons, and only about 12,000 tons of harvest are thrown away, ”explains Martínez Valderrama.

Among the solutions proposed by the team of experts of the Multidisciplinary Institute for the Study of the Environment “Ramón Margalef” of the UA to minimize the environmental cost of throwing away basic foods such as vegetables every day, is the regulation of the market, the containment of the irrigated area and the price of products. “If the laws that regulate the use of water were complied with, the farmers would charge a fairer price for their products and the large distributors did not take most of the benefits, probably it would not be necessary to dispose of the merchandise in this way so little environmental and ethically unsustainable ”, maintains Martínez Valderrama.


This research is part of the BIODESERT project financed by the European Research Council and led by the distinguished researcher from the University of Alicante Fernando Tomás Maestre Gil. BIODESERT assesses how human actions derived from grazing or agriculture, and climate change affect arid zones around the world.

In reference to the study published in Nature Food about food waste and resource depletion, Master points out that “it is a really important issue both from an environmental point of view, due to the consumption of water and the emission of greenhouse gases, as well as from an ethical, economic and social point of view in a world where there are more than 800 million people are hungry ”.


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