February 25, 2020

How Large is the Carbon Footprint of Wasted Goods in the Food Industry?

Producing food for the world's rapidly growing population is incredibly taxing on many natural resources. Irrigation and fertilization are imperative to raise crops. To rear cattle, you need access to water, land for grazing and grains for finishing. Processed foods consume electricity during the manufacturing process, and each item not grown locally must be shipped.

Environmental Costs

Thanks to these considerations, food production has a tremendous impact on carbon emissions. Unfortunately, however, almost one-third (33%) of all food items produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted. While this has significant economic implications, the effect on carbon emission is staggering. As of 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that food wastage produces an annual carbon footprint of 4.4 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalents. 

This figure means that food wastage, almost 1.3 billion tons each year, accounts for about 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. Those emissions contribute to global warming almost as much as global road transport emissions. If food wastage were a country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint of any country in the world. Only China and the United States regularly emit more greenhouses than are caused by food wastage. 

Social and Economic Costs

To compound the significance of this issue, in 2012, wasted food cost almost 1 trillion USD. Other environmental (like soil erosion) and social costs (poverty, inequality) are a bit more challenging to quantify. However, the bottom line is still the same: food wastage is a huge problem that costs a lot of money and is harmful to the environment.  If food wastage is not adequately addressed, it will be even more challenging to feed the additional 2 billion people projected to live on earth by 2050. 

How to minimize food waste and reduce environmental impact

Food can become waste at any of several points along the food supply chain, which the FAO breaks down into five parts: agricultural production, postharvest handling and storage, processing, distribution and consumption.

As food progresses through the supply chain, it becomes more carbon-intensive. If an apple rots during or shortly after harvest, it still produces less carbon than for example, an apple that has been made into applesauce, shipped to a store, sold and spoilt. Even though more food is wasted during the agricultural production and postharvest storage stages (about 54%), the carbon impact of food lost during the consumption stage is more severe. Developing countries contribute more waste earlier in the supply chain thanks to inefficiencies in farming, harvesting or distribution of food. Developed nations contribute more waste towards the end, letting foods spoil and throwing them away. 

There are plenty of ideas to combat food wastage by maximizing efficiency at each stage of the food supply chain. The most effective solutions to reducing food wastage rely on spreading awareness to members of the food supply chain and consumers in conjunction with employing technology to maximize supply chain efficiency. 

Incorporating Technology

Educating farmers in developing countries on how to employ more sustainable farming techniques is a great place to start. Cooperatives or professional organizations can minimize food waste by better understanding the local market, coordinating to capitalize on economies of scale, communicating best practices and enhancing the ability to get their goods to the market.

Data collection and communication regarding optimal harvest timing and techniques can save millions of tons of food. By harvesting sweet potatoes at 105 days, for example, they are picked at peak levels of moisture, allowing them to be stored for longer periods, significantly reducing prior levels of waste.

Postharvest handling and storage 

A lot of food is saved with new storage technologies. In West Africa, solar dryers are extending the shelf life of local fruits and starches. Mangoes previously left to rot are now dried for deferred consumption. In Asia, new rice-storage bags that keep moisture out cut rice losses by 15%. By monitoring the temperature and humidity of food storage and packaging facilities, you can ensure that food is kept fresh.

Supply chain coordination

Simple condition monitoring and data logging can help retailers and producers more closely match supply and demand and coordinate the efficient production and sale of food. In 2008, Stop and Shop, an American grocer, was able to minimize food losses to the tune of $100 million. Their data collection and analysis revealed that they were overstocking goods and overloading displays. This trend led to wasted food and lower levels of customer satisfaction. By paying close attention to sales patterns, freshness levels and product losses, they modified their purchasing, stocking and display habits. As a result, customer satisfaction increased, food is an average of 3 days fresher and no longer spoiling on their shelves.

Increasing consumer awareness

Informing consumers, especially in developed countries, is vital to reducing food wastage. While technologies to preserve fresh foods continue to roll out, buying just as much as you need is a foolproof solution. Coordinating ways to donate leftover food to the needy or trying to compost rotting foods can both reduce the impact that food waste can have on the environment. 


Food wastage has a surprisingly large carbon footprint. Thankfully, due to recent technology and improved understanding and awareness of the causes, progress is being made. Ensuring optimal production conditions and best practices can increase yields. Cooperation between supply chain actors can make sure that production and consumption match as closely as possible, allowing for continually less food to go to waste. Managing and monitoring food distribution can also lead to less waste and greater efficiency.

The second component is to inform the consumer. Developed countries waste far too much food, so efforts to minimize excessive purchases or donate excess food to charity are all simple, yet effective solutions. Together, technology and awareness can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of food wastage and better prepare us to nourish our ever-growing global population adequately.

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