Food waste contributes more to the climate crisis than plastic.
Globally, food waste is responsible for around 8% of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
A report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) suggests that as much as a third of food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted.
That’s around 1.3 billion tons of produce and, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “enough to feed every undernourished person on the planet”.
Food waste is split into two categories:
- Food loss which happens during the growing, manufacturing or distribution of produce or products.
- and food waste which happens when the consumer throws out the item without eating or using it.
Food loss is more prevalent in poorer countries where storage, transport, infrastructure and production are not as well developed.
Food waste is far more common in high-income countries where consumers often buy more than they can physically use.
When food is lost or wasted it’s not just a physical product that’s thrown away but everything that went into either growing or manufacturing that product:
the feed, the fertilizer, any packaging, the electricity or heat used, refrigeration, the air or road miles used to transport it…etc.
Food Waste and Methane Emissions
It’s easy to imagine how food wastage contributes to climate change when you think about the intensive processes that are behind that item getting from the farm or the factory and into your kitchen.
But what most people don’t realise is that although food is biodegradable, food that’s thrown into the bin, even salad or vegetable produce, can significantly contribute to methane emissions.
Pep Canadell, a CSIRO research scientist and executive director of the Global Carbon Project explains to ABC News that food left to rot on the street or in fields will emit carbon dioxide.
And that’s not so bad.
Food waste that’s sent to landfill can’t degrade in the same way because there’s no oxygen in the rubbish pile.
Bacteria breaking down the food emits methane instead.
And methane is a bigger contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide.
The Washington Post describes the methane released by food waste as being ‘28 times more potent that carbon dioxide’.
We all understand the impact of sending plastic to landfill but the fact that food contributes so massively to methane emissions is something that isn’t spoken about enough.
Ben Elliot, The Government’s first Food Surplus and Waste Champion, writes in the Spectator that if global food waste emissions were a country then it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China.
The WWF believes that as the world’s population grows, the emphasis should be on feeding more people rather than growing more food.
“Total food produced worldwide would need to increase by 107 million tons annually by 2050” and that “ this level of production would require converting more than a billion acres of forests and grassland into farmland over the next 30 years, resulting in the release of approximately 84 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.”The Washington Post – 31/07/2018
Continuing to produce more food isn’t the answer to current environmental or humanitarian issues.
And it’s important to remember, too, that 1 in 7 people in the world don’t have enough food to eat.
Climate change prevention is about increasing sustainability and reducing food waste.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) calls this a “win-win” strategy: what’s good for the planet is also good for the economy as less food wasted means less money wasted.
How to Reduce Food Waste
There are lots of things that we can do as consumers to reduce the amount of food that we’re sending to landfill.
- Planning your meals in advance allows you to buy exactly what you need when you go shopping. You can then batch cook and pre-prepare meals, saving you time and money.
- Knowing the difference between “best-before” and “use-by” dates on products can stop you throwing out edible food (again, saving you money):
Use-by dates are for safety. You shouldn’t use a product if it’s past the use-by date. This often includes meat products as well as bagged salads.
Best-before dates are about quality and are often included on tinned, frozen and dried foods. You can eat food well past a best-before date but in some cases the taste or quality may have degraded.
- Fruit and vegetables can be composted. By stopping them from going to landfill, you’ll prevent them from releasing methane, and they’ll help enrich the soil in your garden.
Food Industry Responsibility
Being mindful of what we each buy and store in our kitchens as consumers is one thing we can all do but Brian Lipinski, an associate with WRI, tells Yale Climate Connections that
“it’s best to start dealing with any waste before it leaves a farm, rather than getting it all the way to a consumer’s plate, only then to have it go to waste.”
He goes on to say that telling consumers to reduce waste at the end of the chain isn’t going to solve the climate crisis.
The food industry as a whole has to work to reduce the amount of wastage.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that reducing food loss and waste would lower greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to improving food security. Changing what we eat and growing more sustainable and hardy crops (as well as rotating them) to cope with extreme temperatures will help, too.
The impact of food waste on climate change cannot be underestimated. And with much of the focus at the moment on reducing plastic usage, its vital that we don’t ignore one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
We all have a responsibility to reduce the amount of food that ends up at landfill.