Food Waste Makes Up 50% of Global Food Emissions, Study Finds

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A study published last month found greenhouse gases resulting from food waste contribute to nearly half of all global food system emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Food, looked at the loss and waste of 54 different food commodities across four categories and assessed the emissions of food loss and waste at every link in the supply chain, from harvest to landfill or compost. It looked at food waste in 164 countries and regions between 2001 and 2017.

The findings

The United Nations has identified decreasing food waste as a critical part of its Sustainable Development Goals, aiming to halve food waste losses by 2030.

Photo Courtesy Simon Peel via Unsplash

But the study’s findings show a startling contrast to the UN’s goals: global food waste in 2017 resulted in 9.3 billion tonnes of CO2e (GtCO2e) emissions, which is almost equivalent to the total combined emissions of the U.S. and the E.U. for that year. The estimates are double those made by previous studies and point to flaws across the food system.

According to the researchers, the combined emissions from China, India, the U.S., and Brazil generate more than 44 percent of the global supply-related emissions from food waste, and 38 percent of the global waste-management-related emissions.

Developed countries usually have more advanced, more environmentally beneficial technologies which result in lower waste management emissions, developing countries face problems in avoiding food waste after harvest, and those in warmer climates that don’t have access to refrigeration can lead to food spoilage during transit.

The impact of food waste

More than 33 percent of all food produced globally is either lost or wasted each year, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

And that produces emissions losses in a number of ways: methane and CO2 as the food decomposes, but also wasted emissions in transport and production — even cooking food in your own kitchen that gets tossed out contributes to the problem.

woman cooking
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Further, food waste is expensive. The UN says it costs more than $400 billion per year all while 800 million people go hungry.

The researchers recommend intervention strategies that include halving food loss and waste generation, as well as halving meat consumption, and deploying technological advances to reduce emissions. If food loss and waste were halved, this would eliminate around one-quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system.


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