From the U.N. to your dinner table: The importance of addressing food waste in the name of climate change

By Rosaly Byrd.

Two weeks ago, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its Food Wastage Footprint report that outlined the environmental and economic impacts of wasted food in the global economy. The report, which was a first of its kind released by the FAO, stated that each year one third or 1.3 billion tons of food is grown but not eaten. According to the summary, 250 km3 of water is used to produce this wasted food, which is about 6.25 times the amount of water used annually for agriculture in California. Along with water use, the FAO’s Food Waste Footprint summary examined energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, finding that food wastage has a carbon footprint of 3.3 tonnes of CO2. As the report pointed out, this makes food wastage the world’s third largest emitter if it was a country, following behind USA and China. Moreover, the report explicitly states that this amount is twice the GHG emissions of all USA road transportation in 2010.

Cereals, including rice crops that emit methane, had the largest carbon footprint of all food groups followed by meat and then vegetables & fruit. High-income regions such as North America and Europe were responsible for the majority of wasted meat consumption, while Industrialized Asia (China, Japan and Korea) was largely responsible for cereal and vegetable waste. Developing countries’ role in food waste did not occur in the consumption but rather on the production side; food perished as a result of inefficient harvesting techniques and storage. This is a low-hanging-fruit in terms of actions that can be tackled to reduce global GHG emissions. For developing countries, it could mean knowledge sharing to transfer best harvesting techniques, creating markets for leftover crops (such as “gleaning” excess crops), as well as financing for cooling facilities. We may even see a side event at the UNFCCC COP19 in Warsaw this year relating to this topic.

Looking within the United States, the University of Texas found that the energy equivalent to food wasted annually in the U.S. could “power Switzerland for a year”, if not longer. In addition, the UN recognized that organic waste is the second highest component of landfills in the U.S., although composting exists as a rational alternative to regular discard. As a matter of fact, considering the potency of the methane emitted from landfills, composting could actually reduce GHG emissions by over 90%,  as compared to when organic waste is sent to the landfill. National and state policies could encourage more composting with education programs, economic incentives to reduce organic waste in trash, and organic material bins around cities, while restaurant standards could require giving surplus food to secondary markets and effective partnerships with suppliers.

But all in all, this is something households and individuals need to address. Individuals must take the initiative to reduce the amount of food they throw out. It’s common to pay little attention to when we waste food, especially with the large portions we often find at restaurants and easy trips back to the grocery store if our veggies go bad at home, but mindful decisions can help reduce these occurrences. Although I do feel guilty about throwing out that last expired Greek yogurt in my fridge, chances are it will happen again if I’m not conscious of what I’m buying when choosing food at the market. Therefore I decided to include some tips in learning how to avoid wasting food. Plus, by preventing food waste, we not only help to reduce environmental degradation, but we can save money; the FAO points out in the report that $750 billion food is wasted each year.

  • Make use of fruits & veggies that may go bad. Make smoothies with those browning bananas.
  • Box what’s left of your meal when eating out.  If you won’t eat it later, bring it to charities that feed the needy.
  • Plan your weekly meals and know your portions. This will help you decide how much of what food to buy.
  • Learn and understand what food should go where when storing. For example, don’t take packaging off fruits & veggies until you’re ready to eat them, and store apples, bananas, citrus and tomatoes by themselves as they cause other foods to spoil.
  • Don’t over-exaggerate “best by” dates. The FAO report included that this was an issue in developed countries.
  • Compost. As mentioned earlier, composting is a way to reduce GHG emissions that come from landfills. Plus, compost is a natural fertilizer for your garden.

Below are two links about food storage that can help you get the most of your food (and money) to avoid waste, as well as a link to FAO’s “Tool Kit” on reducing the food waste.

5 thoughts

  1. Thanks Rosaly! We have all been guilty of not being mindful about watching the expiration dates on our food. It is something that simple though that can make a difference. Thanks for the tips too, planning out meals is ideal before a trip to the market. Also on point about smoothies, my spinach got a bit soggy so I just tossed it in my green smoothie and it tasted delicious!

    Great post!

  2. This is great! it really is so important to raise awareness of this issue. I feel as though it gets lost in the shadow of big discussions about climate change and saving the environment, despite this being such a big player in both those things!

  3. Very informative!
    This awareness will help us save money and reduce waste.
    I definitely changed my way of shopping…

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