Food Waste and Climate Change

When you pass over that less-than-perfect looking apple at the market for the blemish-free, shiny skinned one, or tip the unwanted left-over from dinner into the bin, do you think of the waste of energy and carbon consumed to produce it?

Part of the challenge of feeding the present-day malnourished and the future members of a growing human population is making the most of the food we produce. Understanding where food is wasted is an important step in understanding where changes need to be made to reduce food waste.

A perspective piece in the journal Science title “Waste not, want not, emit less” starts with reminder that discarded food wastes carbon emitted in producing the food but also the carbon emitted and released in the disposal and decomposition of the wasted products. With one third of the world’s food in weight being wasted and agriculture being an industry high on the climate change contributor list, this is a huge area where food security and emissions reductions can be made at the same time.

The author of the piece splits unused food into two categories; food loss, which accounts for food damaged in the production and transporting stages (upstream loss), and food waste, being food fit for consumption but which is discarded for reasons such as being considered suboptimal due to minor imperfections or because it is close to its use-by date (downstream loss).

Upstream loss is a greater problem in developing countries. To correct this, the article suggests that passing knowledge and technology to these countries to improve their infrastructure will greatly reduce these production and post-harvest losses. Further, small-scale farming adapted to local regions along with better supply-chain collaboration will result in better sustainability.

Food waste is a significant problem in high-income countries. For example, throughout North America and Oceania, half of our total food waste and loss is made up of food discarded in the household. Whether it is customs and habits such as offering too much food to guests or leaving food on the plate as a sign of good manners, misconceptions of and overly cautious approaches to food safety or packaging and advertising issues, these multiple waste issues require addressing.

Suggested reforms to reduce downstream losses include:

  • waste-friendly labels for best-before and use-by dates;
  • retailers (and consumers) reducing aesthetic requirements for sale;
  • relaxing food safety regulations to allow use of retailer food waste when food safety isn’t also compromised;
  • developing packaging that allows portions of a product being used but keeping the remainder fresh;
  • restrict the use of marketing strategies such as ‘buy 1, get 1 free’ promotions;
  • employ food waste reduction campaigns;
  • use discounts on food nearing expiry dates and use positive marketing to improve purchase rates of imperfect food products; and
  • redistribute remaining food through food banks.

The future of food requires not only greater efficiency in crop production in a more hostile climate but also requires more efficient use of the food we manage to grow. Understanding the points of stress on our food system such as in this article will hopefully inspire action and ideas to address the problem with greater clarity.

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