Reducing Food Waste, Addressing Climate Change

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 13 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States can be attributed to our food system—growth, manufacturing, transportation, and disposal. As the Natural Resources Defense Council reports, approximately 40 percent of food is thrown away, reducing food waste can significantly impact GHG emissions, which increase the negative impacts of climate change.

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Landfills are a large part of the problem, as they not only take up large amounts of space, but also release methane, a short-lived climate pollutant that causes 86 times more warming over a 20-year period than the same amount of carbon dioxide, according to the most recent estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (for more information on landfill methane, see EESI’s fact sheet). Landfills cause upwards of 20 percent of all methane emissions in the United States; with 21 percent of all landfills being filled with food waste (a 50 percent increase since 1970), there is significant room for improvement.

While reducing the amount of food waste through production efficiency gains, better management in grocery stores, and options for carry-out and smaller consumer portions are all commonsense solutions that should be a high priority, there are other methods to reduce the amount of food waste that makes its way to the landfill. More grocery store chains, catering and food companies, universities, and other institutions that sell and serve food are looking into methods of recycling food waste through composting or the use of biodigesters. In 2012, EPA found that only five percent of 36 million tons of food waste was diverted from landfills, but the use of digesters can help increase this percentage, while also providing valuable resources. The July issue of Biomass Magazine will feature two projects that use pre-consumer and post-consumer waste, as well as agricultural waste, to create electricity, heat, and transportation fuel with the use of food waste digesters. As biodigester use increases due to the need to avert food waste and other products from landfills, biogas can be produced and used to provide electricity and for fuel.

The United States has a serious food waste problem, but food security could become an even bigger issue. On May 22, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published a report defining the link between climate change and waning food security, urging the U.S. government to act on this growing threat. The report—entitled Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate—describes how changes in rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and more frequent and intense natural disasters caused by climate change could reduce food production growth in the United States by 2 percent each decade for the rest of the century. Endorsed by a bipartisan group of science, business, and policy leaders, this report identifies strategies for the U.S. government to use in integrating climate change into a food security strategy by passing legislation, increasing funding, collecting data, expanding partnerships, and advancing international action concerning this issue.

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