Climate’s hidden enemy: food waste

When we think of climate change, there’s all sorts that spring to mind: power station chimneys and belching car exhausts, trees cut down with chainsaws and planes jetting across the sky. Not to mention lonely polar bears.

But there’s something missing from this picture of climate change: food waste. If your mind’s eye didn’t conjure up a pile of unwanted potatoes, you’re not alone – less than a third of people in the UK are aware of the link between food waste and climate change.

traffic light sign submerged under water

A huge, hidden problem

t’s hard to imagine what 2.5 billion tonnes of food looks like – but that is the amount that goes uneaten globally each year. Even more mind boggling is that latest figures show that this amounts to 40% of all food that is produced – a worrying increase on the one-third previously estimated

The world has a serious food waste problem. 

But why is that such a problem for the climate? 

Growing food creates greenhouse gas emissions both directly – through fuel used for agricultural machinery, methane produced (famously) by cows, and packaging and transportation – and indirectly due to the loss of carbon sinks, like forests and grasslands, to create land for crops and grazing. Plus, when unwanted food breaks down, it emits the potent greenhouse gas methane. 

So wasting food means a lot of emissions, and unnecessary ones at that. Food waste is estimated to account for a whopping 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions – twice as many as those all-too-familiar belching car exhausts create each year across the US and Europe.

The same is true of the water that feeds the crops and livestock that are farmed but never eaten. Wasted food uses 760km³ of water every year – enough to fill 304,000,000 Olympic swimming pools. With the world’s rivers drying up and more than half its wetlands already gone, water is a resource that ecosystems can’t afford to lose. By using up water and, critically, inefficiently replacing wild lands with monocultures, food waste also damages biodiversity.

On forks and in fields

The 931 million tonnes of food that households chuck in the bin each year is a big problem – but it’s not just the food waste that happens in our homes that’s the culprit. Food is wasted from the moment it grows from the ground. As much as 15% of all food produced is lost before it leaves the farm, not least because retailers often put pressure on farmers to grow too much in order to guarantee agreed quantities, and are fussy about the size and shape of the produce they will accept. And another 14% of all food produced goes to waste during processing, packaging, transportation and at the point of sale.

So, what’s the answer?

Project Drawdown – a world leading resource for climate solutions – says fighting food waste is the number one solution to keeping global heating to 2℃. So how do we do it?

Many hands make less-wasteful work.

  • Governments need to make comprehensive food waste reporting mandatory for businesses, including at farm level
  • Local councils need to make food waste recycling easy and accessible
  • Businesses need to better manage and disclose their food waste, above and beyond government requirements
  • Leaders in the food industry must shift power into the hands of growers and stock what’s available – no longer rejecting produce that’s the ‘wrong’ size or shape or setting up contracts that pressure farmers to grow a surplus
  • Citizens should buy what is grown by choosing ‘wonky’ or surplus wherever it’s available, and plan meals so there’s barely anything in that food waste caddy at the end of the week.

Get involved

What you buy and eat makes a difference – especially as household food waste has already returned to pre-pandemic levels. But you can help make bigger, broader change by being part of our Wasteland campaign.

If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, only after China and the US. So we’ve called this country Wasteland, and made a plan to wipe it out. 

Now we need your help. To really put food waste on the map, we need to get the attention of those in power – which means spreading the word about Wasteland. Join the mission by telling friends, family and colleagues – and if you’re on social media, click here to check out our video about Wasteland. Tag a friend who cares about the planet, and share the video with #WipeOutWasteland (and don’t forget to tag us! @oddboxldn).

Together, we can stop Wasteland from destroying the climate.