Food Waste, Climate Change and Hunger: A Vicious Cycle We Have the Power to Break

World Food Program USA
October 5, 2020
Photo: Unsplash/Anna Kaminova

We’ve all been there: You get home from a restaurant and realize your leftovers are still on the table. Or you open your fridge to find soggy spinach and some moldy hummus. Wasting food never feels good – we know it’s a valuable resource that millions go without. On World Habitat Day, we’re calling attention to another reason not to waste food: its impact on our environment.

There are two important (and big) numbers to keep in mind when talking about food loss and waste (here’s a primer on the difference between the two):

  1. Every year, 1.3 billion tons of edible food is lost or wasted.
  2. Meanwhile, more than 800 million people go hungry.

That’s hard enough to fathom, but it gets even more complex when we consider how food waste relates to climate change.

Tossed Food Turns Into Greenhouse Emissions 

Lost and wasted food might not seem like humanitarian issues, but they are. The way we use – or don’t use – our food contributes directly to the health of our global climate and the food security of millions of people. How?

When we lose and waste food, we still use all the energy, water, land, supplies and human energy it takes to grow, store, harvest, transport, package and sell it. Then, when food gets thrown away, it rots, producing methane – an especially dangerous greenhouse gas.

From farms to fridges, our food generates emissions every step of the way.

Meanwhile, low-income countries – where the vast majority of poor, hungry people live – bear the brunt of food waste’s environmental impacts.

Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

In 2019, Mozambique was struck by the strongest cyclones in its history. The storms flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

Here are just a few shocking stats:
  1. The food we waste and lose every year requires land larger than the surface area of China and India and three times the water in Switzerland’s Lake Geneva to produce.
  2. If food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.
  3. One third of global emissions come from agricultural production, yet we waste or lose one third of the food we produce.
  4. The global cost of food waste is $2.6 trillion dollars, which includes $700 billion in environmental costs.
  5. More than 80% of the world’s hungry people live in places that are highly prone to extreme weather, where a changing climate is only making things worse.

Wasting and losing perfectly edible food means wasting and losing the valuable, finite resources used to make it. In the end, the hungriest, poorest people suffer the most, because they don’t have food to spare in the first place.

A drought ridden field is pictured at sunset, with dried up crops.
Photo: WFP/Matteo Cosorich

Hotter than normal temperatures and nearly no rain have led to drought in Zimbabwe and caused these crops to dry up, sending even more people into hunger.

Food Waste Means Extreme Weather Means More Hunger

We’re locked in a pretty nasty cycle when it comes to food waste, climate change and hunger.

Here’s how it goes: We lose and waste food. That waste contributes to worsening weather. Extreme weather events disrupt and damage livelihoods and food security in low-income countries, leaving even more people hungry.

A changing climate directly impacts global food security. Those increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather patterns result in lower crop yields, more pest infestations, food and livestock lost to drought and flooding, supply chain disruptions and overall higher food prices. And each time a flood or drought strikes, hungry and malnourished people are left even more vulnerable to the next disaster.

The impact is already being felt in low-income countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean – all places the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) works.

a dry river bed

The lean season came early to Madagascar in 2018. Here, the Mananbovo river, a critical source of water for crops and livestock, dried up.

What Can We Do? 

It might sound dire, but food waste in high-income countries is actually one of the easiest challenges to tackle. If we suddenly stopped wasting food, we’d cut global emissions by 8 percent. Even better, reversing food waste and loss trends would save enough food to feed 2 billion people . That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.

In developed countries, most food waste happens at the consumer level. If we change our individual, collective and corporate level behavior (encourage retailers to think sustainably and reduce food waste, buy conscientiously, embrace imperfect fruits and veggies, etc.) we can save a lot of food from landfills.

In the lower income countries where we do most of our work, food is almost never wasted. Instead, it’s lost during growing, harvesting and storage due to traditional tools and ineffective containers – issues we’re working on directly. If we could equip farmers across Africa with air-tight containers, for example, we could cut their food loss from 40% to less than 2%. You can learn more about how we’re tackling some of these problems head-on at our food waste hub. We’re also working to help vulnerable communities prepare for, recover from and build resilience to extreme weather events.

Cutting down on food loss and waste at individual, communal and global levels will help preserve our fragile ecosystems and feed more hungry people. We don’t need to produce more food – we just need to be more careful about the way we grow, store, transport and use the food we already have.

Find more about food loss and food waste here, and donate here to help us protect and feed people around the world most impacted by hunger and climate change.