Reducing food waste ranked as #3 solution to climate change

Food waste piles up on a farm, a more common cause of wasted food in low-income nations. Source: Flickr


What’s the deal with food waste & the climate?

We often talk about the connections between food waste and climate change. But how much of an impact does food waste really have on our climate? Climate change is a complex issue, with many contributing factors, and our food system isn’t too simple either. It turns out that food waste, and the food system in general, is a leading contributor to climate change around the world. A third of the food we grow does not make it from farm or factory to fork, which is responsible for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the University of California, Los Angeles, 20.4% of global greenhouse emissions can be attributed to agriculture and land. The land devoted to producing food that is never eaten is about 5.4 million square miles, which would be the second largest country in the world behind Russia, or 10% of the earth’s habitable land. It follows, then, that reducing food waste is one of the leading solutions to climate change—number three, in fact, on Project Drawdown’s list of the most effective solutions to this global crisis.


Food waste falls under the Agriculture and Land sector, which is the second leading source of global emissions.
Source: University of California. 


That’s a lot of carbon!

Project Drawdown is a research and communications organization that works to educate people about solutions to climate change that reduce greenhouse gases by avoiding emissions and/or sequestering carbon in the atmosphere. Out of 80 proposed solutions to climate change, reducing food waste is ranked third. After taking into account a shift towards plant-based diets, a 50% reduction in the amount of wasted food by 2050 would result in the avoided emission of 26.2 gigatons of CO2. Less food waste is directly correlated with more efficient use of our natural resources, so this 50% reduction would also avoid deforestation for additional farmland, preventing 44.4 gigatons of additional emissions. Combined, that equals 70.53 gigatons of reduced CO2 by the year 2050! So, how do we get there?


A large portion of the projected reduction of CO2 would come from avoided deforestation to create more farmland.
Source: Wikimedia Commons


The solutions

When, where, and how food is wasted differs greatly around the world. In developing countries, waste is usually “unintentional and occurs earlier in the supply chain”—food is left on farms or spoils during storage or distribution. In developed countries, “willful” food waste happens farther along the supply chain—once it reaches retailers and consumers. Food is rejected for its appearance, and we also overconsume food at grocery stores and restaurants which leads to waste. ReFED found that nearly 85% of food wasted in the United States occurs at the retail and consumer level, in stores, restaurants, and homes. We need tailored solutions based on the regional differences in how food is wasted—in lower-income nations, the solution lies in improved infrastructure for storage, processing, and transportation. In higher-income nations like the United States, we need to reevaluate our supply chain and create national policies to encourage change. While the focus should be on preventing food waste, through models like Food Forward’s produce recovery programs, solutions such as composting or anaerobic digesters are beneficial options for food that cannot be redistributed to feed food insecure populations.


Reducing food waste can start in your own community—like at a Food Forward harvest! 

Looking ahead

As the numbers above suggest, food waste is a big, global issue—but coming together to reduce food waste is one of the best solutions we can implement to fight climate change. We can see massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time that we build a more sustainable agricultural system for our earth’s growing population. The beautiful thing about tackling food waste is all of the additional benefits, besides the climate impact—both social and economic. Reducing food waste means we can redirect that food to those without access, what Food Forward does every day. The future of food can be sustainable, equitable, economical, healthy, and a key solution to climate change. Chad Frischmann of Project Drawdown says it best: “It represents one of the greatest possibilities for individuals, companies and communities to contribute to reversing global warming and at the same time feed more people, increase economic benefits and preserve threatened ecosystems.”



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