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Food waste makes up ‘half’ of global food system emissions

Greenhouse gases resulting from rotted and otherwise wasted food accounts for around half of all global food system emissions, according to a new study.

Around one-third (pdf) of all food produced is either lost or wasted each year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to halve global food waste and reduce food losses in production and supply by 2030.

The study assesses the emissions of food loss and waste along every link in the supply chain – from the time the food is harvested to when it ends up in landfill or compost.

It finds that, in 2017, global food waste resulted in 9.3bn tonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) emissions – roughly the same as the total combined emissions of the US and the EU that same year.

Alongside the carbon emissions, this is occurring at a time when more than 800 million people were impacted by hunger in 2021, according to the UN.

The new study, published in Nature Food, also explores a number of ways in which the emissions from food waste can be reduced, such as halving meat consumption and composting instead of disposing waste through landfills.

The global food system emits around one-third of total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste causes approximately half of these emissions, the new study says.

Location, socioeconomic differences and other factors play a role in the emission levels of food waste around the world.

Developed countries, for example, generally have more advanced, more environmentally beneficial technologies – which can result in lower waste management emissions, the study says.

Prof Ke Yin, a professor at Nanjing Forestry University in China and one of the corresponding authors on the study, says that the team hopes that their findings will make people aware of the “huge amount” of food waste emissions.

She said: “Some countries have done some work to prevent food wasting, such as public education and government policies. Some examples are waste sorting in Japan, Germany and, more recently, China. Yet, many countries spend little to no effort [combating the problem] due to various reasons, such as poverty, inequality and political instability.”

Developing countries, in particular, face problems avoiding food waste after harvest. If producers, especially those in warmer climates, do not have access to refrigeration, the food can spoil on its way to the consumer.

The study uses food supply data from the FAO that covers 164 countries and regions between 2001 and 2017. It examines the loss and waste of 54 different food commodities across four different categories: cereals and pulses; meats and animal products; roots and oil crops; and fruits and vegetables.

The study assesses the waste emissions from different supply-chain activities and waste-management processes – taking a “cradle-to-grave” approach.

It examines emissions from food loss and waste created during nine different steps after the food is harvested and it travels along the supply chain. These supply stages are: harvest, producer, storage, transport, trade, processing, wholesale, retail and consumer use.

Researchers also assess the emissions resulting from food ending up in landfill or dump sites, examining how food loss and waste emissions vary depending on the country, region and type of food. Income, technological capacity and dietary patterns all affect emissions levels in individual countries and regional areas.

The study finds that – combined – China, India, the US and Brazil generate just over 44% of the global supply-related emissions from food waste and 38% of the global waste-management-related emissions.

The researchers say their findings could help decision-makers tailor different interventions on food loss and waste to specific local contexts.

Article originated in Carbon Brief

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