How Does Food Waste Contribute Towards Climate Change?

Why is one-third of the food produced globally never eaten? We trace the causes of food waste and loss across Canada.
Posted on
August 31, 2022
How Does Food Waste Contribute Towards Climate Change?

Imagine a lavish dining room where three tables are set with an abundance of food.

But before anyone can sit down for a much-needed meal, the host dumps one table’s worth of food into the trash.

And then, a third of the guests leave hungry. 

How much food do we waste globally?

Close to a third of the food we produce globally is never eaten.

This may sound absurd, but on a massive (and way, way more complicated) scale, it’s the true story of food waste: Close to a third of the food we produce globally is never eaten. In a world where, in 2019, an estimated 2 billion people “did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food,” this food waste feels like an especially upsetting missed opportunity.

What's the carbon footprint of food waste?

Globally, if food waste were a country, it would have the third-highest carbon footprint (after the U.S. and China), accounting for a whopping 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Successfully reducing our collective food waste is important, because it gives us a chance to avert the worst-case climate scenarios. 

Read more: Unpacking the carbon footprint of what we eat

Fruits and vegetables tossed away contributing towards climate change

How much food do we waste in Canada?

In 2022, the National Zero Waste Council found that 63 percent of the food we threw away could have been eaten—which, for the average Canadian household, amounts to 140 kilograms of wasted food. And it’s not just edible food being thrown away, either: it’s estimated that food waste costs the average household $1,300 a year.

Nationally, that amounts to 2.3 million tonnes of edible food waste every year, which in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, is equivalent to 6.9 million tonnes of CO2—or 2 million cars on the road. 

What is the difference between food loss and food waste?

Food loss and waste may sound like pretty much the same thing, but the difference is important.

“Food loss” refers to the unintentional result of supply chain problems, like pests, bad storage infrastructure or lack of market access. “Waste,” on the other hand, refers to food that could have been eaten but was tossed or left to spoil, because of oversupply, failure to meet cosmetic standards or negligence. 

How does reducing food waste help the environment?

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals say food waste and loss must be halved by 2030, which will be pivotal as the population approaches an estimated 10 billion people by 2050. 

While this might feel like biting off more than we can chew, there are solutions.

Here’s a look at what’s happening across the food chain, from farm to grocery store, restaurant or home. 

Read more: 6 ways to reduce food waste at home

The impact of food waste at home

How much food do we waste at home?

When we shop those abundantly stocked aisles, we tend to buy more than we need and then throw a great deal away.

In the average Canadian household, 63 percent of the food we throw away could have been eaten.

Studies show that organic and kitchen waste make up about 30 percent of what we throw away, with fruits, vegetables, breads and cereals as the most-wasted food groups in our homes.

A reusable cotton mesh bag holding groceries

How can we reduce food waste at home?

The first step to a lower-waste lifestyle is a mindset shift: If we start thinking about the true costs of waste, food feels more precious.

Step two is getting organized: Menu planning is a great way to buy just what you need now, saving you a trip to the compost bin when you realize you had no idea what to do with those impulse poblanos. 

Before you leave for the market, shop your refrigerator first. That slightly wilted cilantro you’ve been ignoring can still be tossed into a delicious soup. While we’re talking about cilantro, proper storage of your fruits and vegetables is more important than it sounds. Walk around your grocery store with waste in mind: How do they display produce? Is there a short-life section? How do they package meat and dairy?

Read more: 11 ways to reduce your kitchen’s carbon footprint

The impact of food waste at farms

A tractor harvesting food at a farm

Why does food get wasted in farms?

At the farm level, unintentional food loss is more likely than food waste. Farmers do everything they can to minimize loss, but they’re working in a system they didn’t design.

Fold in volatile markets, consumer whims, inadequate infrastructure and the effects of climate change, and it becomes a recipe for food loss.

Agriculture is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture (combined with forestry and other related land use) is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and in a perfect world, farmers would make just the amount of food the world needs. But beyond planning for natural disasters, the rigid contracts between farms and suppliers often have unpalatable penalties for not reaching quotas, so farmers hedge their bets by planting more than is needed. 

A recent California-based study found that one-third of the produce from more than 100 farms remained on the ground after harvest or was left unharvested altogether.

While the underlying reasons vary between regions and products, they’re similar: Labour isn’t always available, for example, or prices aren’t enough to cover the harvest cost. Consumers’ exacting aesthetic standards are also a factor: So-called “ugly produce” is often culled because it won’t sell as well. 

In lower-income countries, the problems tend to be more logistical: a lack of refrigeration, storage or pasteurization technologies, for example.

How can farmers reduce food loss?

A farm field growing vegetation

Just as different crops need varying soil conditions, different regions and types of farms require diverse fixes for food loss. Luckily, farmers are good at finding creative climate change solutions and using what they have on hand.

An estimated 13 percent of fruits and vegetables grown in Canada go unharvested, or are discarded following harvest.

It’s hard to stomach whole fields of unused crops when food insecurity is a real issue for so many: studies discovered that 4 million Canadians struggle to put food on the table. But it’s complicated: Even when businesses are properly incentivized through government subsidies or tax credits, the farm-to-food-bank logistics can be overwhelming.

How can farmers reduce food waste?

Although it’s best to prevent loss, divert or donate, a great deal of food still ends up in landfills. Food waste in the U.S., for example, makes up 21 percent of landfills, where it oozes methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

As one alternative to this, some farmers are using technological alchemy to transform their waste (and bolster their bottom line).

The impact of food waste at grocery stores

An aisle of fruits at a supermarket
In the U.S., 3.3 million tons of food is wasted each year because of poor storage, inefficient transport or too much warehouse handling.

How do grocery stores contribute to food waste?

A huge amount of food is tossed before it even makes it to a grocery store’s receiving area: 3.3 million tons of food in American is wasted each year because of poor storage, inefficient transport or too much warehouse handling. But the cracks in the system open wider as the food makes its way to the aisles.

Grocery chains have spent billions on tailoring retail experiences to the human brain, which is wired to consume when it perceives abundance. Seductive surplus (no supermarket wants to look empty) is baked right into the current system.

Next time you’re at your local grocer’s, notice how the fruit is displayed. Those pyramids of shiny apples you can’t resist? They’re a classic example of overstocking, and chances are, the fruit on the bottom may never see the inside of a shopping cart. 

With that said, grocery stores are taking action against this. Supermarkets in the U.K. are starting to remove “best before” labels from some fresh produce to help reduce avoidable waste. 

How can grocery stores reduce food waste?

The gold standard of addressing food waste is source reduction (that’s a fancy way of saying “don’t make as much food”).

To this end, Hannaford Supermarkets, a large New England grocery chain, is actively tackling food waste before it happens. To avoid ordering too much, they use a tech-savvy solution that orders based on real inventory and sales prediction; they’re also moving toward daily fresh deliveries to reduce spoilage. 

While Hannaford’s solutions are effective, a shift in retail culture would help, too. Short-life discount sections—you know, that tiny shelf at the back of the store featuring fluorescent “50% off” stickers—could become the norm.

The impact of food waste in restaurants

A party of people dining out at a restaurant, eating and drinking

How do restaurants contribute to food waste?

Restaurants and the food industry aren’t immune to the perils of food waste either: Whether that’s from prepared food not being served, a surplus of inventory, inadequate storage, or simply customers not finishing the food on their plate. 

And, just as in every other stage of the food supply chain, there’s no quick fix. Restaurants operate on slim margins, and funding new endeavours upfront can be tough.

Many restaurateurs are beholden to landlords who control how waste is collected and disposed of. Nevertheless, many are trying to rewrite the rules of the game.

How can restaurants reduce food waste?

A 2019 study of restaurants around the world with waste reduction strategies found that within a year, 76 percent had recouped their investment. Within two years, that number was 89 percent. The restaurant strategies included waste tracking, reducing overproduction and repurposing surplus.

A group of people hanging out in a cafe

Change in this sector involves reconsidering the cultural norms at play. How full do plates have to be? How many options does a menu really need? Is a buffet truly necessary? Could technology help? An app called Too Good To Go, for example, connects consumers with restaurants needing to offload extra food at a discount. 

Waste audits may sound a little gross and dull, but following the food prevents waste. In fact, tracking makes the most business sense of all possible strategies; this helps with staff and executive buy-in. 

Just like farms, restaurants would benefit from financial and logistical support to donate more of their food. They offer more granular advice, too, like giving diners well-sized take-away containers or, better yet, monitoring what’s left on plates so portion sizes can be adjusted. They also note that many farmers will pick up raw leftovers as animal feed, for less than restaurants would pay to haul it to the landfill. 

Toward a less wasteful future for food

It’s true that slashing our food waste in half by 2050 is only possible if huge systems—agriculture, foodservice, retail—also change. 

But behind each shift there are individuals choosing, advocating and educating.

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Brianna Sharpe
Written By
Brianna Sharpe

Brianna Sharpe is a freelance writer and doting parent who keeps climate change at bay by mending clothes, growing food, and over-thinking every possible purchase.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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