The link between food and global warming

For the guilt-ridden food wasters in our midst, a small company in Oregon just lately discovered a means to poke people to buy more prudently.


The company has crunched the numbers to exhibit that the greenhouse gas emissions from the production, transport, and removal of all the food we could eat — but don’t — add up.
CleanMetrics develops software that does life cycle analysis for companies and organizations who want to measure and reduce their environmental impact. Last year, Kumar Venkat, the company’s founder, and the president was asked by the Environmental Working Group to measure the climate impact of meat consumption, which resulted in its Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change Health.

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That project got him thinking about other emissions associated with food and wasted food in particular. So he gathered USDA’s estimates of food loss from retail and consumers for 2009. And when he fed it into his software, the most interesting story was that he found that food waste is responsible for 135 million tons of greenhouse gases every year, or about 1.5 percent of all emissions.
So how does that break down for a family or an individual? The average family is responsible for about 1, 800 pounds of emissions from food waste, while an individual contributes about 440 pounds a year, Venkat found. A typical car, meanwhile, emits about 9, 000 pounds a year. The emissions from food waste don’t include food eaten in restaurants or the energy used in cooking or packaging wasted food, however.
But all this food that goes to rot isn’t evenly distributed across the grocery store. For example, we waste about 35 percent of the chicken, fish, and fruit we produce, while we only waste about 15 percent of the nuts and legumes on the market, according to USDA.
And some foods also have a much bigger impact on the climate than others. “If you compare beef to tomatoes, beef has a much higher footprint,” says Venkat. “So if you’re going to reduce waste, you need to prioritize.” And by the time the food has reached you, the consumer, the real story is that a lot of those emissions are already on their way to the atmosphere. Venkat says that nearly 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and processing food.
But not only does food waste make a sizable contribution to global warming – but it’s also a lot of money. Venkat calculated that if household food waste could be cut in half, a family of four could save $600 a year. And since there are no regulations that force companies or individuals to reduce their emissions yet, the opportunity to save money is probably the best incentive to reduce food waste there is, says Venkat.