Originally published by The Washington Post on March 28, 2016
Discussions about how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions frequently center on clean energy, more efficient transportation and sustainable agriculture. But research suggests that if we really want to pay attention to our carbon footprints, we should also be focusing on another, less-talked-about issue: the amount of food we waste each day.
Food waste is already a hot topic in its own right. But with mounting concerns about our ability to feed the world’s growing population (expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050), cutting down on food waste is a big concern for experts in global food security. Wasted food is a major problem worldwide: In a 2011 report, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that, in 2007, about 1.6 billion tons of food were wasted. For comparison, about 6 billion tons of food were produced globally that year.
But an aspect of the food-waste issue that has perhaps received less attention is its contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions. In the same report, the FAO estimated that in 2007, the global carbon footprint of all of this wasted food was about 3.3 billion tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents — that’s 7 percent of all global emissions. To put that into perspective, this is more carbon than most countries emit in a year. In fact, only China and the United States exceeded this amount in nationwide carbon emissions that year.
This estimate includes the carbon footprints of all the work that goes into producing this uneaten food — all of the energy that goes into maintaining a farm and producing the food, as well as the emissions that come from soil and livestock. The estimate doesn’t include the carbon emissions that result from converting land for agricultural use or the greenhouse gases that would be emitted by wasted food in landfills. Accounting for those would drive the numbers even higher.
A massive amount of needlessly emitted carbon is poured into the atmosphere to produce unused food. These wasted carbon emissions could be prevented if we made sure that no more food was produced than was going to actually be used.
“The first step is really figuring out what is the right amount that we need to produce,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and an assistant clinical professor of law. Much of the food that goes to waste could be used by people who aren’t getting enough to eat. But it’s also likely that we could stand to reduce our overall production as well, cutting some of those emissions entirely.
“I do think there’s a sweet spot, and we’re not hitting it right now,” Broad Leib said.
Fortunately, cutting down on food waste is a campaign that’s been gaining traction recently. In France, for instance, a new law bans supermarkets from throwing out unsold food, requiring them to donate it instead.
A similar bill, which proposes targets for manufacturers and distributors to reduce certain food waste, is awaiting its fate in Britain’s Parliament. The bill, introduced in September, was meant to have a second reading earlier this month, but it was placed too far down on the agenda to make it to debate, a situation that some have suggested reflects the government’s apathy toward the bill.
Still, it has gained support among some citizens who recognize its potential to aid in food and climate security. In a commentary published earlier this week in the British Medical Journal, three experts in food policy and public health cited the massive carbon footprint of food waste and noted, “The environmental impact of producing food is enormous, so waste contributes needlessly to climate change, loss of biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, and use of scarce agricultural land and limited freshwater resources.”
Meanwhile, no such federal laws exist in the United States, although last year the Obama administration announced a new goal of cutting national food waste in half by 2030. That said, some states are working to address the issue with their own legislation.
A proposed bill in California, for instance, would change the wording on the expiration dates on packaged food to prevent consumers from throwing away products that are still safe to eat. The bill suggests a “best by” label to indicate when a food will be at its best quality and an “expires on” label only for highly perishable foods that would be truly unsafe to eat after a certain date.
These are helpful types of legislation — but research suggests that we also need to be addressing waste on the production side. The FAO points out that food waste occurs at all stages of the supply chain, but the biggest culprit is agricultural production, which accounts for about a third of all food lost.
The FAO published its own set of tips for reducing waste along the supply chain, noting that better resource allocation and improved technology could be instrumental in preventing food waste during the harvesting and processing phases of food production.
For instance, the report notes, “Fresh products such as fruits, vegetables, meat and fish straight from the farm, or after the catch, can spoil quickly in hot climates due to lack of infrastructure for transportation, storage, cooling and markets. New technologies have been developed to improve storage as have green technologies, such as solar dryers that improve the lifetime of products in storage and, in turn, increase food security and economic benefits for the producers.”
Other experts think that focusing on specific kinds of improvements all along the supply chain can help reduce food waste in ways that are specifically designed to cut down on carbon emissions and help the climate.
A group of businesses, nonprofits and other organizations known as ReFED recently published a report titled “The Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent,” which includes a variety of strategies for cutting down on food waste. The report includes an interactive tool that indicates the best policy changes for food-waste reduction depending on the desired end goal — saving money or recovering meals, for instance.
When it comes to slashing carbon emissions, the analysis suggests that the three most important strategies include consumer education campaigns, waste tracking and analytics schemes and centralized composting, noting that “greenhouse gases are reduced per solution by avoiding the resources that go into producing, processing, and transporting food, as well as the methane emissions from food disposed of in landfills.”
Broad Leib, who serves on ReFED’s advisory council, noted that standardizing labeling on packaged food is also a key way to help people cut down on the amount of food wasted. And, in fact, date labeling is cited by the analysis as the fourth most important strategy when it comes to cutting down food-waste-related emissions, capable of cutting out nearly 1.6 million tons of wasted greenhouse-gas emissions per year.
Cumulatively, the report suggests that implementing these strategies and cutting food waste across the country by 20 percent could save up to 18 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually.
Altogether, the collective research on food waste and greenhouse gases provides a sobering reality check, one that is slowly gaining mainstream attention.
“I do think this is something on people’s radar in a way that it wasn’t for a while, and I think it’s probably two things happening at once — the kind of tying together of food waste and climate” Broad Leib said. “In a way, they grew up side by side. There’s things that obviously impact both of them separately from each other, but there’s certainly a big overlap and it’s certainly a thing a lot of people are talking about.”
And as more strategies emerge for addressing the food-waste problem, we may have a chance to tackle climate change in yet another way — this time, one plate at a time.