Food waste a big factor in global warming equation

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A student at Summit Cove Elementary School drops an uneaten orange in the trash can. @bberwyn photo.

1.3 billion tons of food per year are discarded annually

Staff Report

By 2050, food waste could account for up to 10 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Reducing that amount of waste is one way of tackling climate change, the researchers said, explaining that about a third of global food production never gets anywhere near a plate.

That percentage could increase dramatically if emerging countries like China and India adopt Western diets. The study suggests greenhouse-gas emissions associated with food waste could increase from 0.5 gigatons to as much as 2.5 gigatons by mid-century.

“Reducing food waste can contribute to fighting hunger, but to some extent also prevent climate impacts like more intense weather extremes and sea-level rise,” lead author Ceren Hic said, adding that agriculture is a major driver of climate change, accounting for more than 20 percent of overall global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2010.

“Avoiding food loss and waste would therefore avoid unnecessary greenhouse-gas emissions and help mitigate climate change,” co-author Prajal Pradhan said.

after analyzing body types and food requirements under different scenarios, the scientists concluded per capita food requirements holding steady, while food availability has increased rapidly in the past 50 years.

“More importantly, food availability and requirement ratio show a linear relationship with human development, indicating that richer countries consume more food than is healthy or simply waste it,” Pradhan said.

Population growth and lifestyle changes are also projected to boost greenhouse gas emissions by 18 gigatons by 2050.

“Thus, emissions related to discarded food are just the tip of the iceberg,” Pradhan said. “However, it is quite astounding that up to 14 percent of overall agricultural emissions in 2050 could easily be avoided by a better management of food utilisation and distribution. Changing individual behavior could be one key towards mitigating the climate crisis.”

“Currently, 1.3 billion tons of food per year are discarded,” said Jürgen Kropp, co-author and deputy chair of PIK research domain Climate Impacts and Vulnerabilities. While food losses occur mostly in developing countries due to less efficient agricultural infrastructures, food waste in contrast is common in rich countries.

“As many emerging economies like China or India are projected to rapidly increase their food waste as a consequence of changing lifestyle, increasing welfare and dietary habits towards a larger share of animal-based products, this could over proportionally increase greenhouse-gas emissions associated with food waste … at the same time undermining efforts for an ambitious climate protection,” Kropp said.

“Avoiding food loss could pose a leverage to various challenges at once, reducing environmental impacts of agriculture, saving resources used in food production, and enhance local, regional, and global food security,” he concluded.

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