Climate Change

COVID-19: Food waste during pandemic can worsen climate emergency

The median amount of food waste per capita in large developed economies is significantly higher than in large developing economies

 
By Sonakshi Agrawal
Published: Thursday 06 August 2020
Per capita food wastage footprint on climate in high-income countries is more than double that of low-income countries. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A landmark United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 on global warming made clear the disastrous effects of allowing the global average temperature to increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) (measured between 1750 and 2100).

The report indicated a pathway to avoid catastrophe. The Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use sector accounted for around 13 per cent of CO2, 44 per cent of methane and 81 per cent of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from human activities between 2007 and 2016.

That is around 13 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent or 23 per cent of total net anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). For a two-in-three chance of staying within 1.5°C of warming, methane emissions from agriculture need to reduce by 24 to 47 per cent by 2050 (relative to a 2010 baseline).

N2O emissions from the same sector need to reduce as much as 26 per cent. The report also highlighted the need for carbon sequestration — trapping carbon through technological or natural solutions — including enhancing soil carbon through sustainable land management.

The ‘food’ sector is broader than agriculture. It includes harvesting, transportation, storage and retail of food crops and products. Taken as its own sector, it accounts for between 21 and 37 per cent of the total human-caused GHG emissions.

Around 30 per cent of food produced is wasted, accounting for around 4.5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent or 8 to 10 per cent of global GHG emissions. Food waste, which represents irresponsible consumption, should be an immediate target of emission reduction efforts in this sector.

As with most efforts to address the climate crisis, the focus needs to be on the developed world. The median amount of food waste per capita in large developed economies is significantly higher than in large developing economies, according to data available on the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) website.

Food waste in developing and developed countries

Developing countries (OECD*)

Food waste (kilogrammes per 1,000 people, 2017)

Developed countries (OECD*)

Food waste (kilogrammes per 1,000 people, 2017)

Argentina

84.55

United States

112.65

China

89.91

Japan

25.11

Indonesia

57.36

United Kingdom and Northern Ireland

252.13

India

51.11

European Union

61.56

Mexico

87.72

Australia

117.22

Russia

36.49

Canada

87.09

Saudi Arabia**

22.86

Germany

69.36

South Africa

54.48

Italy

30.87

Turkey

150.64

Republic of Korea

44.34

Brazil

477.43

Australia

117.22

Median

70.95

Median

78.23

* Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

** Despite having a high per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia self-identifies as a developing country.

Source: FAO Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT)

The developing country median is significantly propped up by Brazil, which has the highest figure for per capita food waste (477 kg per 1,000 people) for any country, by quite a margin. That is largely explained by Brazil’s domestic bio-fuels sector that generates a huge amount of sugarcane demand (and waste).

Without Brazil and its massive biofuel footprint, the median per capita food waste for large developing economies is around 57 kg, significantly lower than the developed countries’ median.

The IPCC recognises the value of replacing fuels like oil and natural gas with biofuels, but also cautions that they place huge demands on land, leading to desertification, land degradation and food insecurity.

Precisely estimating the climate impact of this waste is a challenge. The emissions intensity of food production and distribution systems varies across economies. Figures for food production and percentage of wastage are disaggregated by types of food (cereals, meat, pulses, sugars and syrups, etc), but data is not available for all categories in all the countries.

An approximation is available by combining data on agriculture emissions as a percentage of total emissions by a country and food waste as a percentage of agricultural produce. The limitation of this approach is that food-related emissions (including transport, storage, etc) are a broader category than agriculture emissions.

Net GHG emissions in developing and developed countries

Developed countries (OECD)

Net GHG emissions (Kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, 2017, extrapolated based on 2000-12)

Developing countries (OECD)

Net GHG emissions (Kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, 2017, extrapolated based on 2000-12)

USA

135,315.34

Brazil

189,248.49

Japan

10,350.59

China

505,910.06

United Kingdom and Northern Ireland

27,544.60

Indonesia

111,854.55

European Union countries

25,423.77

India

311,520.52

Australia

59,456.93

Mexico

35,904.58

Canada

20,769.04

Russia

36,960.06

France

21,910.14

Saudi Arabia*

22,754.19

Germany

62,094.41

South Africa

13,686.69

Italy

125,941.48

Turkey

17,626.76

Republic of Korea

953.04

Argentina

42,611.30

* Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

** Despite having a high per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia self-identifies as a developing country.

Source: FAOSTAT, Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research

Per capita food wastage footprint on climate in high-income countries is more than double that of low-income countries due to wasteful food distribution and consumption patterns in high-income countries, according to a 2011 FAO estimate.

Food waste is concentrated in the processing, distribution and consumption stages in high-income regions, while food losses occur in the production and post-harvesting phases in low-income countries, according to the FAO.

More efficient harvesting in developing countries is, thus, clearly needed. Wasteful consumption in developed countries, however, is long overdue for significant cuts.

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has brought stark inequalities that exist in our social systems into focus. The availability of goods is challenged due to logistical breakdowns and workforce unavailability. Closure of restaurants and hotels has depressed demand.

Social-distancing recommendations are difficult to maintain, especially in labor-intensive food plants, raising food safety concerns. The International Labour Organization warns restrictions on movement can prevent farmers from accessing markets, resulting in food waste.

Demand for meat products has declined due to fear of zoonotic transmissions. While cross-border restrictions did not lead to a significant decline in food production (due to a shift towards stronger regional networks), availability and accessibility of food took a hit due to loss of jobs.

Farmer food insecurity looms large as a threat to the broader food system: The situation is expected to become worse as farmers will focus more on buying food today than buying seeds for tomorrow.

This will lead to depressed sowing and harvesting levels in the coming season. The United Nations World Food Programme warned an estimated 265 million people can face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, up from 135 million people before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing this crisis along with the ongoing climate emergency will need a significant re-thinking of food systems away from extravagant consumption and towards secure access.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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