Looking at food waste through the lens of climate change

Just sharing my recent overview article looking at food waste through the lens of climate change and the role of waste reduction in sustainable food systems:  Can Waste Reduction Move the Needle on Food Sustainability?

Some interesting stats from my analysis (all based on 2009 data, which I had used in my research in 2011-2012):

  • Total estimate of avoidable food waste in the United States is 55.41 MMT/yr, which amounts to 28.7% of total annual production by weight. This translates to 180 kg/yr of total avoidable waste on a per-capita basis, of which 110 kg represents consumer waste.
  • The total GHG emissions from the production, processing, packaging, distribution, retail, and disposal of the avoidable food waste in the U.S. amounts to 112.9 MMT CO2e per year - equivalent to about 2% of national emissions (this is more of a conservative lower bound).
  • Avoidable consumer waste costs a typical U.S. famiy of four approximately US$1600 per year.



Dave Damm-Luhr's picture

Hi Kumar (and Curt) - thanks

Hi Kumar (and Curt) - thanks for taking the convesation about food waste to the next level of detail - just what I was hoping when I posted

climate-linked-hint-food-waste"> "How are Humger and  Climate Linked" earlier this year!  I'd really appreciate your and anyone's thoughts on solutions, particularly in terms of the retail and consumer pieces of the equation.

Kumar wrote in his article on Food Sustainability, "Solutions will need to leverage both education and technoloigy."  Does anyone know what's already happening in that regard - whether for "best used by" food labeling among retailers or increasing awareness among consumers about financial savings?  How much still needs to be done?  Is anyone tracking links between retailers and food banks and what waste (and CO2) that's avoiding?

From the folks at Project Drawdown, pp.42-43, we know that food waste is the world’s third largest Greenhouse Gas emitter, after China and the US - so food waste really does deserve our collective attention!  

Kumar Venkat's picture

Hi Dave, thanks for those

Hi Dave, thanks for those links and questions. The good news is that there is much more awareness of food waste than 10 years ago. Grocery chains and restaurants are taking this more seriously.

There are simple apps as well as more detailed analytical services to help reduce commercial food waste. But I haven't seen any quantification of waste and CO2 reduction yet -- this takes time as data collection takes place and numbers get rolled up. In 2016, the USDA and the EPA set a 2030 goal of 50% reduction in food waste, but I am not sure how well this effort is going to be supported/monitored under the current administration.

Consumer-level waste reduction is much more difficult: as I said in my article, this is challenging because it is made up of small amounts of waste spread across a large, diverse population. It is not a coincidence that some of the same challenges exist in recycling consumer waste and closing the materials loop outside of the food sector (I wrote about this several years ago -- the problem seems even worse now with China banning imports of recyclable waste and countries like the US not having an efficient/incentivized  recycling infrastructure).

Curt Newton's picture

New piece in The New York

New piece in The New York Times takes a comparative global look at waste in different sectors of the food supply chain, from growing to processing to transport to consuming.

I find the magnitude of the regional variations in waste from sector to sector is striking. 

"Food waste is a glaring measure of inequality. In poor countries, most of the food waste is on the farm or on its way to market. In South Asia, for instance, half of all the cauliflower that’s grown is lost because there’s not enough refrigeration, according to Rosa Rolle, an expert on food waste and loss at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Tomatoes get squished if they are packed into big sacks. In Southeast Asia, lettuce spoils on the way from farms to city supermarkets. Very little food in poor countries is thrown out by consumers. It’s too precious.

But in wealthy countries, especially in the United States and Canada, around 40 percent of wasted food is thrown out by consumers..."

Read "How Much Food Do We Waste? Probably More Than You Think

Kumar Venkat's picture

Thanks Curt!  As I commented

Thanks Curt!  As I commented earlier, the supply chain is inefficient in developing countries and there is significant food loss due to inadequate/improper storage -- but it is impossible

to find comprehensive data in those countries similar to what the USDA publishes in the US, so you can't run analyses similar to what we've done here. The other point I would emphasize a bit is that the food waste numbers in developed countries may seem to vary depending on which study you are looking at. In my work, I separated the consumer waste into avoidabale and unavoidable parts (the latter due to things like skins and seeds that can't be consumed, and also due to issues like moisture/fat loss in cooking). This gives a more useful view of what is really being wasted and what is actionable (avoidable waste percentages would of course be lower than total "waste"). This subtle point is often missed or glossed over. Last point is that the year of the raw data may matter, at least in the US, because the USDA makes changes to their data collection methodology over time.

Rick Shankman's picture

Question:  What if all your

“[The] consumer stage [of “food waste”] dominates in the US and Europe.”

Question:  What if all your conclusions were completely wrong?  In fact, not just blatantly incorrect, but functioning as a giant distraction/misdirection from the real climate-related issue of food waste?

Could there be an easy way to reveal the truth about the real source of the gigantic amounts of "food waste" you cite to in your research?  Could there be people in Europe who are trying to commercialize that "food waste" problem?

Answer:  Yes.

Truth:  The real source of the bulk of "food waste" (as you collectively call it) is actually "AFPW" (Agriculture and Food Processing/Forestry Processed Waste), from the unregulated wild growth of institutional farming and the commercial food processing industry.  No, it's not YOU (the public consumer) that's the problem, it's the mega-sized FOOD INDUSTRY that's making the bulk of that waste!

See... AgriMax (complete with lively music) to explain.

Again, this is more climate action distraction (focus on individual behavior), that ignors the true sources of the problem; sources, who undoubtedly appear in the MIT endowment's investment portfolio.

Curt Newton's picture

Thanks for raising this,

Thanks for raising this, Kumar.

I've noticed that in Drawdown's analysis, reducing food waste has potential to be the 3rd most impactful climate solution (only refrigerant management and offshore wind have greater CO2-EQ reduction), and it comes at essentially no cost.

With some estimates that the US wastes about 50% of its produce, there couldn't be any lower hanging climate action fruit.


Rajesh Kasturirangan's picture

Thanks, Kumar. Quick question

Thanks, Kumar. Quick question: how representative is the US in this regard?

In your article you mention that waste contributes about 2% of US emissions, while the comparable number in the UK is 3%, which suggest a much higher % of waste in the UK. Of course, US has much higher per capita emissions from transportation etc. What's the number in China or India? Is this primarily a rich world problem?

Kumar Venkat's picture

Rajesh, my sense is that the

Rajesh, my sense is that the US is quite representative of developed countries for food waste.

The UK number is higher in part because they account for consumer-level energy use and also due to underlying methodology differences. My 2% is a conservative lower bound, and doesn't include consumer energy use from cooking, refrigeration, shopping trips, etc. We know that food waste is an issue an India or China, but we don't have the type of comprehensive data that we need for the analysis. Some years ago, the situation in India was that the supply chain was the biggest culprit due to inadequate storage facilities (whereas the consumer stage dominates in the US and Europe).