Science food waste is a cause of global warming

Published on July 21st, 2015 | by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

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One Cause Of Global Warming That Gets Overlooked: Food Waste

food waste is a cause of global warming

What are the biggest threats posed by the amount of food we waste? Decreasing landfill space? Hunger? Water and energy waste? Yes, all of these are important considerations. But another one we tend to overlook: food waste is a cause of global warming.

The 40% of food that gets wasted from farm to plate creates 3.3 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases… and much of that is methane, which is much more potent than the more common carbon dioxide. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China. But, according to Responding to Climate Change, the upcoming agreement on global warming due for discussion and signing in Paris this year doesn’t give food waste the attention it deserves.

When we do think about this issue, we tend to focus on end users: consumers that over buy produce and let some of it go bad, or throw away leftovers from home and restaurants. This kind of waste does account for a third of food waste, but the rest happens during distribution. While we tend to focus on waste that occurs in the developed world, in part because of our desire for seasonal produce year-round, the developing world’s amount of waste is growing with their economies. China, for instance,  still moves fresh produce around in open trucks, and thus experiences 40% waste in its $1 trillion grocery market. India faces similar issues with its banana crop: the country grows 28% of the world’s bananas, but exports only 0.3% because of waste along the supply chain.

The typical Western response to any lack of food, regardless of cause, is to grow more of it. So, rather than addressing food waste, and the embedded waste of water, agricultural chemicals, and energy, we’re opening more land to cultivation. As much of that land is forest, including rainforests in tropical regions, we’re decreasing the planet’s ability to absorb carbon.

Finally, our global food system means fresh foods are often transported thousands of miles to their final destination. Any food wasted along the way represents fossil fuels burned, and carbon emitted, without any subsequent feeding of people. And as climate change effects weather conditions that contribute to successful agriculture, our wasted food isn’t just contributing to current hunger, but to empty bellies in the future.

Seem like an important enough issue for discussion at the Paris climate summit later this year? Yeah… Let us know your ideas for addressing food waste as a cause of global warming.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


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About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at



  • allpurposeguru

    Thanks for calling attention to waste in the supply chain and in third world countries. It’s so easy for us not to look past the obvious. Food waste is a huge problem for so many reasons, and the more people become aware of the less obvious, the more likely it is someone will think of solutions.

  • Sebastian

    I think that the rise of urban agriculture and grassroots agricultural efforts could be a method to battle this food waste. The less the food has to travel to reach its destination, the less energy/petrol that is used as well as a lower chance of it spoiling.

    • I agree to an extent, Sebastian, but for that to really make a difference, we also have to change our diets… we’ll only be able to grow limited amounts of non-native foods in any given region…

  • Jeremy Ambrose

    Global warming biggest cause is road surf vehicles and city’s and combustion. Over population don’t help either.if vegetable waste is a cause we should be dead right now… Veggies been around before people.this is a minor issue of society’s neglect of self sustainability in any town or single home. Use of coal don’t help. Fumes from a car exhaust they say is safe b.s. sit in a garage with the doors closed start your car spend 24 hours in it not safe deadly I.e. car exhaust not healthy or safe.

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