climate change food waste

What’s food waste got to do with climate change?

Food waste is one of the easiest environmental issues to talk about, as almost everyone can agree that it’s a bad thing. If nothing else, it’s a waste of money, and everybody wants to get more out of their household budgets. It’s also a good place to make a difference, because there are so many benefits to stopping it. Wasting less food would make better use of land and water, improve food security, and lower emissions too.

As the World Resources Institute have pointed out, it’s easy to underestimate the climate impact of food waste:


These emissions come from the vast quantities of food that ends up rotting in landfill, but behind them are all the emissions that went into the food that went uneaten. That includes the emissions from livestock, the energy and fertilizer used on the farm, and then the energy for processing and transporting the food. Any energy used to store the food will add to that emissions bill, along with energy for cooking. Altogether that’s 4.4 gigatonnes of emissions every year, 8% of the global total.

Up to now most of the work I’ve seen on this has been national consumer campaigns or development NGO reports, but I was interested to see the launch of Champions 12.3 last month. It’s a coalition of business and government leaders working together on food waste – its name references UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, to halve global food waste by 2030. Last year another group of agencies produced the Food Loss and Food Waste Protocol, a way of standardizing how we measure food waste – a key first step to understanding the problem at the international level. It looks like it might be getting the specific attention it needs as a global issue.

And so it should. At present a third of the food produced in the world goes uneaten, possibly more. In developed countries it tends to go to waste, while developing countries suffer more from food loss. Either way, a more efficient food system is one of the most obvious win-wins out there.


  1. It is amazing how much waste there is. I try to reduce waste at my house, but we inevitably end up tossing food that has sat in the fridge too long.
    I’m making an effort and still there is waste. So many people make no effort at all.

    1. Yes, it’s probably impossible to completely cut out food waste. I’ve noticed that we throw away more since the kids arrived, and I’d like to be able to do something about that. I’ve been reading about hot composting, which might be a good solution.

    1. I’m pretty sure I have done in the past! It is a problematic assumption, as you say, but there are indirect effects.

      One is that if we throw away a third of what we buy as consumers in the West, then the world food markets have to provide that extra third even though it’s not needed. If we threw away less, that would reduce demand, and reduce price pressures on global food prices. That could be beneficial, especially on bad harvest years. But even that’s not black and white.

      Secondly, it’s important to distinguish between food waste and food loss. Food waste doesn’t translate to solving hunger in any direct way, but food loss does. That’s where food is lost through poor transportation or storage – contamination, rot, things like that. It’s a major problem in developing countries that don’t have the warehouses, silos, refrigerated storage, etc. Stopping that really would make a difference to hunger.

      So I think food waste has a role to play in stopping future hunger, but it’s complicated. Where it’s done badly – ‘donating’ surplus food to poorer countries, for example – it can undermine local farmers and actually make things worse.

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