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The Enormous Carbon Footprint of Food that We Never Even Eat

Discussions about how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions frequently center on clean energy, more efficient transportation and sustainable agriculture. But research suggests that if we really want to pay attention to our carbon footprints, we should also be focusing on another, less-talked-about issue: the amount of food we waste each day.

Food waste is already a hot topic in its own right. But with mounting concerns about our ability to feed the world’s growing population (expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050), cutting down on food waste is a big concern for experts in global food security. Wasted food is a major problem worldwide: In a 2011 report, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that, in 2007, about 1.6 billion tons of food were wasted. For comparison, about 6 billion tons of food were produced globally that year.

But an aspect of the food-waste issue that has perhaps received less attention is its contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions. In the same report, the FAO estimated that in 2007, the global carbon footprint of all of this wasted food was about 3.3 billion tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents — that’s 7 percent of all global emissions. To put that into perspective, this is more carbon than most countries emit in a year. In fact, only China and the United States exceeded this amount in nationwide carbon emissions that year.

This estimate includes the carbon footprints of all the work that goes into producing this uneaten food — all of the energy that goes into maintaining a farm and producing the food, as well as the emissions that come from soil and livestock. The estimate doesn’t include the carbon emissions that result from converting land for agricultural use or the greenhouse gases that would be emitted by wasted food in landfills. Accounting for those would drive the numbers even higher.

A massive amount of needlessly emitted carbon is poured into the atmosphere to produce unused food. These wasted carbon emissions could be prevented if we made sure that no more food was produced than was going to actually be used.

“The first step is really figuring out what is the right amount that we need to produce,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and an assistant clinical professor of law. Much of the food that goes to waste could be used by people who aren’t getting enough to eat. But it’s also likely that we could stand to reduce our overall production as well, cutting some of those emissions entirely.

"I do think there’s a sweet spot, and we’re not hitting it right now,” Broad Leib said.

Fortunately, cutting down on food waste is a campaign that’s been gaining traction recently. In France, for instance, a new law bans supermarkets from throwing out unsold food, requiring them to donate it instead.

A similar bill, which proposes targets for manufacturers and distributors to reduce certain food waste, is awaiting its fate in Britain’s Parliament. The bill, introduced in September, was meant to have a second reading earlier this month, but it was placed too far down on the agenda to make it to debate, a situation that some have suggested reflects the government’s apathy toward the bill.

Still, it has gained support among some citizens who recognize its potential to aid in food and climate security. In a commentary published earlier this week in the British Medical Journal, three experts in food policy and public health cited the massive carbon footprint of food waste and noted, “The environmental impact of producing food is enormous, so waste contributes needlessly to climate change, loss of biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, and use of scarce agricultural land and limited freshwater resources.”

Meanwhile, no such federal laws exist in the United States, although last year the Obama administration announced a new goal of cutting national food waste in half by 2030. That said, some states are working to address the issue with their own legislation.

A proposed bill in California, for instance, would change the wording on the expiration dates on packaged food to prevent consumers from throwing away products that are still safe to eat. The bill suggests a “best by” label to indicate when a food will be at its best quality and an “expires on” label only for highly perishable foods that would be truly unsafe to eat after a certain date.

These are helpful types of legislation — but research suggests that we also need to be addressing waste on the production side. The FAO points out that food waste occurs at all stages of the supply chain, but the biggest culprit is agricultural production, which accounts for about a third of all food lost.

The FAO published its own set of tips for reducing waste along the supply chain, noting that better resource allocation and improved technology could be instrumental in preventing food waste during the harvesting and processing phases of food production.

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