Three Ways to Combat Climate Change by Reducing Food Loss and Waste
Imagine coming home with three bags of groceries, setting two of them down on your kitchen counter and tossing the third bag directly into the garbage. Though we may not see it this distinctly, this occurs every day on a global scale: Approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.
Globally, food that is lost or wasted contributes an estimated 8-10 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — if compared to a list of countries’ total GHG, it would rank third behind China and the United States. This significant contribution to climate change has been the driver of a growing focus on reducing food loss and waste (FLW). At last month’s COP27, the UN Environment Programme, FAO, and the Champions 12.3 coalition of governments, businesses and organizations launched the 123 Pledge to challenge governments and businesses to “commit to concrete steps that will make reducing food loss and waste a part of their action agendas on greenhouse gas emissions.” As plans to reduce FLW take shape, potential focus areas to maximize climate change mitigation while improving the availability and affordability of nutritious foods include the following:
1. Developing a Plan to Reduce Food Loss and Waste With Target-Measure-Act
The first step in reducing the climate impact of FLW is prevention — reducing FLW itself. The “Target-Measure-Act” approach provides a roadmap to prevent FLW through the following steps:
- Setting targets. To motivate action, governments and businesses are encouraged to set explicit FLW reduction targets aligned with SDG 12.3, which aims to halve retail and consumer food waste and reduce post-harvest food losses by 2030.
- Measuring food loss and waste. Assessing food systems to identify and measure sources of FLW over time provides decision-makers with information about how much, where and why food is lost or wasted. This provides the foundation and evidence for prioritizing interventions to most effectively reduce FLW and supports monitoring of these interventions.
- Taking action. Reducing FLW at scale will require action by many actors in governments and businesses across food systems, and coordination across stakeholders will be necessary to ensure effective action. EatSafe: Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food is an example of a USAID-funded activity that is engaging public, private and research stakeholders to foster better food handling practices, including by updating regional Codex guidelines for traditional markets to improve food safety and reduce loss and waste of nutritious foods.
2. Minimizing Emissions in Food Loss and Waste Reduction Interventions
FLW interventions can be designed to minimize further GHG emissions. For example, cold chains serve a key role in preventing FLW by reducing food spoilage. Targeted policies can support the uptake of more sustainable refrigeration technologies that are energy efficient and use coolants with less low global warming potential. Pairing cold chains with clean renewable energy can take these GHG reductions even further. Episode 4 of the USAID FLW Podcast on Agrilinks explores approaches and challenges in developing efficient cold chains.
3. Mitigating the Climate Impact of Organic Waste
Despite our best efforts, food waste will still might occur. Food may still spoil before it gets eaten, or may otherwise become unsafe to eat and need to be discarded. Additionally, fresh foods often come with inedible portions, such as bones, shells or peels. When it comes to climate change, what we do with that organic waste matters.
Globally, a majority of solid waste from urban areas is wasted food and other biodegradable organic waste and is discarded in landfills. When organic waste is buried underneath layers of garbage and deprived of oxygen, it gets decomposed by bacteria that produce methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas — 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Landfills are responsible for an estimated
11 percent of global methane emissions, and this is expected to increase as the world’s population grows.
To curb methane emissions from decomposing food in landfills and other dumping sites, countries can enact policies that incentivize the separation of organic food waste for other use, such as anaerobic digestion to produce biogas for fuel. Industrial-scale composting is promoted by the UNEP and produces soil-enriching compost that can be sold to farmers, plant nurseries and individual consumers for home gardens. Early research is exploring the use of insects to generate income from organic waste, including a Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish activity investigating the use of black soldier fly larvae to produce protein-rich feed for fish farms in Nigeria.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face, and substantial food loss is only making the crisis worse. Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative led by USAID, recognizes the critical role that reducing FLW plays in strengthening efforts to end hunger and malnutrition while mitigating climate change. Feed the Future has invested accordingly with $60 million over five years in new research awards across its network of Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Countries can build on the increased attention on FLW by making a plan to reduce FLW through the Target-Measure-Act approach, minimizing GHG emissions in the interventions that are implemented and improving the way organic waste is handled. The potential interventions are numerous, and the time to act is now.