Food waste causes extremely high CO2 emissions – knowledge

Containers or “dumpster diving”, i.e. garbage diving – that’s what it’s called when discarded food is taken from supermarket garbage containers. This is forbidden in Germany. In 2019, two students were warned for “collectively committed theft”.

One now shows in the specialist magazine Nature Food published study how serious the problem of food waste is not only from an ethical point of view, but also for the climate. According to this, half of the global greenhouse gas emissions from food production are due to waste and losses alone, a total of 9.3 billion tons of CO₂ equivalents. This roughly corresponds to the annual emissions of the United States and the European Union combined.

In this country, Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann (FDP) and Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir (Greens) have now spoken out in favor of impunity for containers. So far, however, nothing has changed in the legal situation. Of course, containers could only save a fraction of the gigantic amounts of food that end up in the bin every year. According to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, around eleven million tons of food are thrown away every year in Germany alone.

Disposing of meat is particularly harmful to the climate. The new study from China and Singapore came to the conclusion that beef and lamb cause 77 times more emissions than tomatoes over the entire production route. The rotting process in landfills produces additional greenhouse gases, and the waste infrastructure itself also produces some.

In rich countries, much of the waste comes from private households

The study takes into account emissions across the entire supply chain – from the field to the table, or even into the bin. It is based on food supply data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) covering 164 countries and regions between 2001 and 2017. The authors rely on a study from 2021, according to which the global food supply causes about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. That seems quite high, other sources speak more of a quarter. However, the higher estimate also takes into account the use of fossil fuels in agriculture, such as fuel for agricultural machinery.

Regional differences such as climate, income and diet are reflected in the emission figures. Emissions from waste disposal are generally higher in poorer countries, as richer countries tend to have more modern and efficient facilities. Developing countries in tropical or subtropical regions also lose a particularly large amount of food between harvest and sale. Missing or bad cooling technology is to blame.

In Germany, on the other hand, 59 percent of food waste goes back to households and only two percent to production. In general, in industrialized countries, a meat-heavy diet, often long transport routes and complex food processing are driving up emissions. Around 73 percent of global food waste emissions are from meat, 21 percent from grains and just 2.4 percent from fruit and vegetables.

In countries with high meat consumption such as the USA, Europe and Australia, its share in emissions is even more than 85 percent. The authors therefore write that halving the global consumption of animal products would save around half of today’s emissions from food waste. However, there are also technical options available to reduce emissions. The researchers advise composting discarded food or converting it into energy in biogas plants instead of letting it rot in landfills.

Ke Yin, a professor at Nanjing Forestry University in China and co-author of the study, sees major gaps in tackling food waste. “Many countries are making little to no effort for various reasons such as poverty, inequality and political instability,” he says. Only 21 countries have explicitly committed to reducing food losses or waste in their national plans to fulfill the Paris Climate Agreement.

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