Agricultural Emissions and Global Food Waste

Leading up to and at COP 19, I worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists, helping them to develop policy positions related to climate change adaptation and mitigation in global agriculture. Agriculture is a nascent subject within the UNFCCC, but by 2020, global emissions targets relating to both forests and agriculture will be incorporated under a single heading of “land use.” Addressing agricultural emissions will be a significant step for the UNFCCC. The following statistics convey why:

  • According to a recent report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, demand for food is predicted to increase by at least 60% by 2050 – not simply because of population growth, but because of changing consumption patterns, referred to as the “nutrition transition.” Developing countries are rapidly adopting a Western diet, with increased demand for meat, other animal products, vegetable oils, and sugars, and a concomitant decrease in per capita consumption of grains and root crops.
  • Agricultural activities are directly responsible for 10-12% of human generated greenhouse gas emissions; this excludes emissions resulting from fuel use and fertilizer production. However, when including the clearance of forests to make way for crops and livestock, agriculture is responsible for a significantly larger share of global emissions. (CGIAR)
  • 33% of the world’s land area is used for agriculture
  • 33% of the world’s cropland is devoted to growing animal feed.
  • Agricultural clearance is responsible for three-quarters of all tropical deforestation
  • 47% human-generated methane emissions and 58% of nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture

In truth, I have difficulty comprehending the vast scale of landscape, resources, and livelihoods dedicated to growing food for human and livestock consumption. And yet, the United Nations estimates that, at present, one-third of the global food supply is wasted (1.3 billion tons annually). To minimize global emissions from agriculture, a logical first step might be to reduce food waste.

In poor countries, food waste typically occurs pre-distribution: for example, milk, meat, or produce may spoil during transport or due to lack of refrigeration, while rats or other pests may infiltrate granaries. In contrast, in wealthy countries food is primarily wasted post-distribution: stores throw away immense quantities of packaged food that has passed its “sell by” date, while households don’t eat their lettuce before it becomes a soggy puddle in the back of the vegetable drawer.

Packages of cheese puffs in a grocery store dumpster

While I have little personal experience with pre-distribution food waste, I can attest to the extreme volume of food thrown away in the United States; food that was grown, processed, and shipped using valuable land and resources, and that has produced significant emissions in the process. By 2050, the Earth must feed 9 billion people. Let’s start by minimizing gratuitous waste and regaining 30% of our global food supply. This won’t solve all problems intrinsic to the existing global food system, but it would be a fine start.

For more, see related reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United NationsNRDC, and UCS.