Food is responsible for 37% of GHG emissions
The production of food is responsible for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions with it contributing 17.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year – almost 19 times that of the commercial aviation industry.
With many countries committed to net zero emissions by 2050, it is vital that we dramatically reduce the negative impact of our food supply chain.
It is therefore vital to track food waste arisings and their environmental impact from farm to fork and beyond.
Food waste starts at the source
From the moment a seed is planted in the ground or livestock is born for food, it is a game of chance whether it becomes part of the 1.2 billion tonnes that is lost during harvest, or in the case of animals during slaughter.
According to the Driven to Waste report from WWF and British supermarket Tesco, this means 15.3% of the food produced is lost before it leaves the farm or abattoir.
As a result, as much as 40% of food is never eaten when both farming and post-farming activities are considered.
Interestingly, 58% of global farm-stage food waste takes place in middle- and high-income countries despite higher on-farm mechanization, better infrastructure and supposedly more advanced agronomic practices. This is because factors such as overproduction and the saturation of markets drives prices down and creates a structural problem that exacerbates waste.
Globally, the food produced but wasted every year, according to Food is for Eating requires:
- 1.4 billion hectares of land – close to one third of the land available for agriculture
- 250,000 billion litres of water – enough to supply New York with all its domestic water needs for 120 years
- 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – food waste would be the third biggest emitter after USA and China if it were a country
- US$750 billion of lost economic cost – equivalent to the GDP of Switzerland.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the top emitters of greenhouse gases from food systems in order are: China, Indonesia, United States, Brazil, European Union and India.
Food Shaming – identifying the least sustainable foods
At the production stage, some of the least sustainable foods are:
- 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 are produced per year from livestock – beef and dairy cattle represent 65% of the livestock emissions
- One tonne of avocados requires 1,981 cubic litres of water to grow, compared to 383 cubic metres for sweet potatoes and 214 cubic litres for tomatoes
- Soy – while increasingly part of the diets of those who are vegan, vegetarian and eating less meat, soy beans are mostly used as an animal feed. Both soy bean production for animal feed and palm oil plantations, are just behind meat production as the main causes of deforestation
- Data from the US Department of Agriculture, shows that strawberries were the fresh produce item most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues - 99% of samples were found to have pesticide residues on them. In California in 2015, nearly 300 pounds of pesticides were applied to each acre of strawberries planted, compared to just 5 pounds for corn.
Farm to Fork Food Waste
Packaging experts from California Polytechnic State University observed that 8.5% of produce in disposable packaging arriving at distribution centres was damaged, compared to zero in stronger reusable containers.
A study undertaken in Brazil found that a lack of adequate infrastructure and logistical processes was behind much of the food waste in the country, and was likely to be the same in other developing nations.
It found that better prediction of food demand, improved handling of food by workers, and investment in more refrigeration would help mitigate food waste from transport.
Food Waste at Manufacturing
Researchers from Brunel University London in the UK and Ghent University in Belgium found that 10.9% of food waste in the manufacturing phase came from sub-optimal inventory management – this was only second to losses recorded by manufacturers from product change.
While manufacturers need to provide more training to employees on how to reduce food waste, having suitable systems in place is also important.
Environmental writer Erich Lawson says: “Having the right ERP software in place will facilitate food waste reduction efforts by food manufacturers and distributors. ERP software is an ideal solution for food waste manufacturers looking to reduce food waste.
“With ERP software in place, manufacturers can analyse shelf life, track slots, prevent cross-contamination, avoid overstocking and have accurate inventory orders.”
According to FAO, packaging of food at the manufacturing stage now contributes about 5.4% of global food emissions, which is more than transport.
A study by WRAP in the UK found that some plastic packaging was leading to food waste by forcing consumers to purchase more of a product than they needed. Instead of putting packaging on items like apples, bananas, broccoli and potatoes, around 60,000 tonnes of food and 8,800 tonnes of plastic could be saved each year.
While since January 2022, France has banned packaging on most fruit and vegetables and Spain is expected to follow in 2023.
In-Store Food Waste
The US Environmental Protection Agency found that the average grocery store emits 1,383 tonnes of CO2 per year from energy consumption, and another 1,556 tonnes from leaked refrigerants. This is equivalent to the emissions of 635 cars.
Ratio Institute staff found some of this could be mitigated, while also saving $15,000 per year through simple actions such as:
- regularly monitoring equipment to predict maintenance needs,
- removing lights in breakroom vending machines,
- turning off appliances overnight or when they’re not in use,
- ensuring that refrigerated return air vents are free of obstructions, and
- keeping walk-in freezer doors closed when they’re not in use.
As well as emissions, retailers are responsible for wasting food by having strict cosmetic requirements for fruits and vegetables.
The United Nations Environment Programme notes that 20% to 40% of UK fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach the shops, mostly because they do not look nice or are oddly shaped.
Household Food Waste
About two thirds of household food waste is due to food not being used in time before either use by or sell by dates, or if it has gone off.
The other third comes from people cooking or serving too much food.
In the UK, WRAP has recommended that removing best before dates on food packaging and allowing consumers to judge whether the food is fresh themselves could reduce waste by 50,000 tonnes per year. Additionally, it recommends storing fresh produce at temperatures below 5 degrees Celsius to increase the shelf-life of a product threefold.
Clearly, the global carbon footprint of food production is a major issue globally that requires every element from food to fork to do their bit to reduce emissions, water use, pesticide contamination while also helping to reduce the economic and environmental impact of waste.
Organizations, companies, and individuals are working on ways to use technologies, energy efficiency and education to reduce our environmental impact from the food we eat.
What is clear is that sustainable food production and consumption is a collaborative effort where everyone needs to think and act on their environmental impact.
To achieve this, Feedback Global has developed a circular food model. This means that we prevent overconsumption and overproduction and that surplus food fit for human consumption feeds people. If not, it should be repurposed to feed livestock and fish and finally fed to soils through compost and manure.
As Feedback Global notes: “All three levels of the food system – humans, animals and soil – need to be fed and replenished to create a sustainable future.”
At AMCS, we view technology as a key enabler in the fight to prevent food waste across the supply chain. Our innovative computer vision-based solution, AMCS Vision AI is deployed to detect contamination of food waste collections and our innovative pay by weight billing systems are used to incentivize organizations to divert food waste to organic containers for collection. Learn more here.
In the next articles, we will look at:
- A deeper look at the problem of food waste around the world
- What we can do to tackle food waste.
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