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The Food Waste and Climate Connection

Global Food for Thought by Eden Merkle
A worker dumps pre-consumer food waste

If food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the US.


With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) approaching, leaders around the world will soon convene after pledging 26 years ago to address climate change.  Along with securing global net-zero emissions by mid-century, adapting to protect communities and natural habitats, and protecting and restoring ecosystems, building resilient infrastructure and agriculture are included as main goals of the conference this year.

On the Agenda

Addressing problems in agriculture, global food production, and food systems has been a recent theme in the movement to meet the Paris Climate Accord targets and UN Sustainable Development Goals. September’s UN Food Systems Summit highlighted some of the critical areas that need to be addressed in food and agriculture systems. Chief among them is food waste, an issue that reveals many of the inefficiencies and flaws in the food supply chain.

Food waste has been recognized as an urgent issue by the UN, US government, European Parliament, and global business coalitions like the Consumer Goods Forum, which have all set goals to cut food waste in half by 2025 or 2030.

Sources of Food Waste

Globally, about a third of the food currently produced ends up in landfills. In the United States, food waste rates are even higher, estimated at between 30 and 40 percent of the total food supply.

Along with that discarded food goes the labor, water, land, and energy inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, prepping, storing, and disposing of said food. The implications for this are vast and are estimated at a total annual loss of $940 billion.

Depending on the country, sources of food waste differ between stages along the supply chain. In India, an estimated 30-40 percent of produce rots before it ever reaches the market in the absence of cold storage facilities. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lose 30-40 percent of their crop, enough to feed 49 million people, due to insects, mold, and moisture. Low-income countries tend to experience a greater portion of food loss in the pre-consumer stage, while high-income countries experience a majority of food waste at the retail and consumer stages.

The Climate and Hunger Connection

Across the planet, 1.4 billion tons of food are wasted every year. When that food is sent to landfills, methane is released during its decomposition. To put those emissions into context: if food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest emitter behind China and the US.

But the phenomenon of food waste also points to another issue: an inequitable food system that is not designed to serve everybody. While one-third of food in the world is discarded, there are 957 million people around the world that do not have enough to eat. The world has enough food to feed those individuals four times over. Hunger, therefore, can be regarded as an issue of logistics rather than scarcity.

Innovating to Fight Food Waste

Entrepreneurs have started to take a serious look at tackling these logistic issues through social enterprises, policy, and technology tools. Some governments, including France and New York State, have enforced donation laws to prevent quality food from being discarded by grocery stores and supermarkets, instead requiring food to be donated to food banks and non-profit organizations. Similarly, Italy passed a law in 2016 which incentivizes restaurants, grocery stores, and food retailers to donate food fit for consumption through a tax rebate program.

Technology developments, including mobile apps like Too Good to Go, help to connect businesses with surplus food and customers to buy at a significant discount. On the retail side, enhanced demand planning in grocery stores using software and AI tech performs require forecasting for highly perishable foods, which helps to significantly cut back on waste.

Solutions at the production stage, both on farms and in distribution, highlight the importance of access to dependable refrigeration, cold storage during distribution, and streamlining market access using digital tools. Start-ups have begun innovating to tackle these challenges head on in countries where a majority of food loss occurs on the farm. In Nigeria, where 40 percent of agriculture products never make it to market due to spoilage, ColdHubs provides solar-powered cold rooms for farmers which extend produce life from two to 21 days. With aims to streamline access to reliable markets for smallholder farmers, Modou Njie’s Farm Fresh has seen a steady demand in The Gambia and plans to launch in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Ghana over the next year.

Achieving a Food System for All

Target 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals calls for halving global food waste by 2030, while eliminating food waste globally has the potential to feed two billion people. This will be a critical part in achieving a Zero Hunger world.

Action by all stakeholders along the food supply chain, including producers, manufacturers, retailers, and the food service industry, will be required for real solutions to work. It will also require support from policymakers and governments in expanding food donation programs, clarifying guidance on safety for donations, and strengthening liability protections for participants. At the same time, public and private investments to further the development of food waste solutions, infrastructure for donation services, and consumer education campaigns are essential parts in achieving waste reduction.

By addressing food waste, the COP26 agenda’s broader goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce threats of climate change, and create more resilient food systems can help to be realized. As a significant driver of climate change, the fight against food waste is the fight for not only reducing environmental harm, but also for the human right to food, health, and well-being.

About the Author
Eden Merkle
Intern, Center on Global Food and Agriculture