Emissions from food waste are at least three times the emissions generated from the aviation industry on a global scale. One quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by food waste rotting in landfills, taking the form of methane gas. Not only do these emissions contribute to global warming, but they can also have an adverse effect on us as consumers. Here are five areas that climate change from food waste can affect us. 

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How Does Food Waste Affect Climate Change

Food is wasted for a number of different reasons. Studies have found that a third of the world’s food ends up in the rubbish before it even reaches the tables of consumers. A staggering 1.3 billion tons of fruit, meat, dairy, seafood, grains and vegetables gets discarded annually. 

Food waste occurs throughout the whole production process. This waste usually takes place at all four levels of the supply chain: producer, distributor, seller and consumer. Discarded food takes up a large percentage of our landfills – more than plastic, paper, wood and glass. 

Three types of food have been identified as being discarded: good food that has gone bad, food we think that has gone bad but it has not, and food we know is consumable but we simply don’t want it anymore. In fact, only a small portion of the food discarded is actually inedible. 

A large portion of the food wasted takes the form of rejected food from retailers, food and produce being discarded as they do not meet the aesthetics requirements to be sold in their stores. The other portion of food thrown out is food that we have discarded simply because we do not want it. Food can (and should be) donated to someone who needs it, however resources, money and transport to do so comes with logistical restrictions, and can often outweigh the perceived benefits of donating the food. 

At the same time, the number of people affected by hunger is slowly rising. Malnutrition affects 10.5% of humanity, whilst 26% are obese. A United Nations (UN) report on food security found that nearly 690 million people are hungry. That’s 8.9% of the world’s population – up to 10 million people in one year, and nearly 60 million in five years. 

The world produces more than enough food to feed everybody, so why is there such a large number of people suffering from hunger? In a world where food poverty can be eliminated, we need to do a better job at ensuring the unwanted, edible food reaches those who need it the most. 

The way we perceive food is problematic. We may not think twice about pouring milk down the sink, or throwing away leftovers that we had forgotten. In some areas of the world, it is even considered polite to leave a small amount of food on the plate to show that the host has not scrimped on potions. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) 2011 report established that food waste alone accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the warming of the Earth’s surface. 

When we discard food, we need to consider three problem areas that are affected from wasting food: resources expenditures, environmental externalities and social costs. All three of these areas can have an adverse effect on the climate. 

Emissions from food waste are at least three times the emissions generated from the aviation industry on a global scale. One quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by food waste, taking the form of methane gas. Methane gas, a gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide itself, is released when the food waste is left in the landfills to rot. 

We have a window limit of 1.5°C for climate change, meaning we need to be eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions as soon as we possibly can. Food waste accounts for 6% of the total greenhouse gas emissions released globally, and it could be higher if we factor in the cost of losses on the farm during the production and harvesting stage. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on food security found there to be a multiple number of reasons and factors that affect food waste. It identified low income countries as contributing 40% of food waste, and high income countries to be contributing 53% of food waste. 

The reasons for food waste in countries is based on their level of development. The high income countries, such as the US, Europe, China, Japan and Australia, appear to have the most food waste occurring during the distribution part of the production process. This is when the food reaches the consumer’s refrigerators, or when they are transported and reach the retailers. 

In contrast, less-developed countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean all appear to have their food loss occur at almost all areas of the food production chain, as they generally have poorer infrastructures, archaic technologies and fewer production resources. Food waste may typically occur in the earlier stages of the production, where the production process may face infrastructural challenges such as lack of refrigeration, improper storage facilities, technical constraints in harvesting techniques etc.

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Professor Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Work Group III, believes that further problems to food security in the future will rise, caused by the results from climate change — such as lower yields (especially in the tropics), higher prices, a loss of nutritional value and supply chain disruptions. These can be correlated with the issues that arise from food waste. 

1. Environmental Cost

It’s no surprise that climate change caused by food waste carries a huge environmental cost. When we waste food, we are also wasting all the resources that were used to produce the food, the three main ones being energy, fuel and water.

A large amount of freshwater is wasted on the agricultural process and feeding animals. This wasted water comes at a time where the world is suffering from a freshwater shortage, with countries predicted to become uninhabitable in the foreseeable future

Additionally, food waste emits one of the leading gasses that is the culprit of climate change: methane. 

2. Lower Yields

There is a clear impact of climate change in our agricultural system. Several factors influence the yield of a crop – the mass of harvest crops produced in a specific area. These factors can be grouped into three basic categories: technological (managerial decisions, agricultural practices etc.), biological (diseases, weeds, pests, insects etc.) and environmental (soil fertility, climatic conditions, water quality etc.).

Therefore, climate change from food waste is also having an impact on the volume and quality of the food that is being produced. 

Adverse weather can have a severe impact on the production of food. For example, droughts followed by intense rain can increase the likelihood for flooding, which can then create conditions that favour fungal infestations of roots, leaves and tuber crops. Other factors, such as the reduction of bees’ density due to global climate change, can lead to the local extinction of several plant species. 

In addition to the unpredictable intensity of weather conditions, there is pressure to increase crop production in many countries, to keep up with consumer demands. This has resulted in the expansion of land area for agriculture, erosion of land to create non-arable terrains, deforestation and the intensification of cropland management practices through agricultural methods such as irrigation, use of large quantities of inorganic fertilisers and synthetic chemicals used for weed and pest control. These practices can have an adverse effect on water quality, soil fertility and even accelerate the degradation of soil properties and water quality. 

In today’s era of climate change, trying to keep a balance between producing enough food to match population growth and preserving the environment is challenging.  

3. Higher Prices

With the wastage of food comes the loss of consumer surplus, particularly in situations where retailers have rejected perfectly edible food, as it does not meet their strict aesthetic requirements and policies. 

As this consumer surplus is loss, retailers may start to increase the price of food to replace this loss of surplus. This can hit families financially, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The increase in pricing may create issues of food poverty and even cause individuals to experience nutritional deficiencies, as they may not be able to afford the best foods to nourish themselves. 

4. Loss of Nutritional Value

Agricultural research has found that our most important foods have been getting less nutritious for some time. Studies on vegetables and fruits have shown that minerals, protein and vitamins have measurably dropped in the past 70 years. It has been assumed that the reason for this is that we have been breeding and choosing crops based on their capacity to produce higher-yields, rather than nutritional value. Higher-yielding crops such as wheat, tomatoes and broccoli have been chosen to be grown in bulk, despite being less nutrient-packed than other foods. 

Aside from climate change caused by food waste, other forms of pollution can also have a direct impact on the nutritional value of the crops we yield. The atmosphere plays a large role in the growth process of food, and can affect the nutritional value each crop holds. The more greenhouse gasses we emit, the more indirect nutritional changes we influence on the food we eat. 

The more pollution there is in the air, the more sugars are made in plants. This influence on the growth of crops, also known as the “junk-food affect”, has been found to be occurring in fields and forests all over the world

“Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” stated Irakl Loladze, a biologist at Arizona State University who made the discovery. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history – [an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

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5. Supply Chain Disruptions

Although food waste itself can be caused by supply chain disruptions, the supply chain disruptions can also be caused by food waste. As food waste is such a large global issue, this can cause uncertainty in the food supply chain. This uncertainty stems from consumers and suppliers quickly switching their consuming habits, to meet the needs of societal fads. 

A good example to illustrate this point is the effects COVID-19 has had on the supply chain. As governments have been imposing restrictions and “social distancing” measures, consumers have to quickly switch from dining out, to cooking at home. This quick switch can either cause food surpluses or shortages along the food chain, as the changes were done so abruptly, and the other parts of the food production chain could not meet these demands in time. 

Additionally, the changes in types of food can have an effect as well. It was found that when COVID-19 measures were implemented, there was a rise in “comfort foods” such as frozen pizzas, liquor and macaroni and cheese, being consumed. This dramatic shift in food demand caused volatility to the amount of foods that needed to be produced to meet demands and the food prices. Large amounts of food that ended up being wasted were milk, eggs, onions, beans, potatoes etc. 

Therefore, introducing changes needs to be done carefully and slowly, so other parts of the supply chain can keep up. 

What’s Next?

Reducing food waste is an initiative that does not cost a lot to implement, and the financial and environmental benefits can be monumental. Approximately 6%-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stop wasting food. It has been predicted that if food waste is halved in 30 years, we can avoid emitting at least 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This would be equivalent to 2,570 coal-fired power plants being taken offline

Policies can be implemented to help alleviate food waste, however it must be done carefully, and in a manner that does not harm the livelihood of the masses. In Germany, when food waste measures were implemented, 30 billion euros was saved, however 600,000 jobs were lost. 

We have to be prepared for externalities to arise if any policies were implemented. For example, if a tax were to be implemented for food waste, we need to be prepared that this could discourage people from buying food. By discouraging people from buying good, producers will have to produce less food, but this could cause the prices of the food to increase. 

Despite the potential consequences however, other policies have been largely successful in reducing food waste. In Vermont, a universal recycling law was implemented in 2012, and big waste generators were barred from throwing away uneaten food. The state food banks saw donations triple after this law was implemented. 

“They don’t attribute all of that to the universal recycling program, but some of it definitely is,” said Josh Kelly, materials management section chief for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.