Reduced Food Waste
The problem: A third of the food raised or prepared does not make it from farm or factory to fork. That number is startling, especially when paired with this one: Hunger is a condition of life for nearly 800 million people worldwide. And this one: The food we waste contributes 4.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent into the atmosphere each year—roughly eight percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.
In places where income is low and infrastructure is weak, food loss is typically unintended and structural in nature—bad roads, lack of refrigeration or storage facilities, poor equipment or packaging, a challenging combination of heat and humidity. Wastage occurs earlier in the supply chain, rotting on farms or spoiling during storage or distribution.
In regions of higher income, unintentional losses tend to be minimal; willful food waste dominates farther along the supply chain. Retailers reject food based on bumps, bruises, coloring—aesthetic objections of all sorts. Other times, they simply order or serve too much, lest they risk shortages or unhappy customers.
Similarly, consumers spurn imperfect spuds in the produce section, overestimate how many meals they will cook in a week, toss out milk that has not gone bad, or forget about leftover lasagna in the back of the fridge.
Basic laws of supply and demand also play a role. If a crop is unprofitable to harvest, it will be left in the field. And if a product is too expensive for consumers to purchase, it will idle in the storeroom.
Regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same. Producing uneaten food squanders a whole host of resources—seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, financial capital—and generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when organic matter lands in the global rubbish bin.
Solutions in progress: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals call for halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030, as well as reducing food losses along production and supply chains.
Work to be done: The interventions that can address key waste points in the food chain are numerous and varied. In lower-income countries, improving infrastructure for storage, processing, and transportation is essential. Strengthening communication and coordination between producers and buyers is also paramount for keeping food from falling through the cracks. Given the world’s many smallholder farmers, producer organizations can help with planning, logistics, and closing capacity gaps.
In higher-income regions, major interventions are needed at the retail and consumer levels. Most important is to preempt food waste before it happens, for greatest reduction of upstream emissions, followed by reallocation of unwanted food.
Standardizing date labeling on food packages is an essential step. Currently, “sell by” or “best before” dates and the like are largely unregulated designations, indicating when food should taste best. Though not focused on safety, these markers often confuse consumers about expiration.
Education is another powerful tool, including campaigns celebrating “ugly” produce and public feasts made from nearly wasted food. National goals and policies can encourage widespread change, as well.
Green America resources: Get ideas from our “Tackling Food Waste” issue of the Green American.
If the world reduces its food waste by 2050, it would see the following:
GHG reduction (Plausible Scenario): 70.53 GT of reduced CO2-e by 2050.
GHG reduction (Drawdown Scenario—requires greater food waste reduction): 83.03 GT of reduced CO2-e by 2050..
Cost (Plausible Scenario): Too variable to be determined.
Savings (Plausible Scenario): Too variable to be determined.