Climate Corner: What’s food got to do with climate change?

Apr 29, 2023

Linda Eve Seth

Cutting food waste is a delicious way of saving money, helping to feed the world and protecting the planet. — Tristram Stuart


What we eat, and how that food is produced, affects our health, of course, but also the health of the environment.

Food needs to be grown, processed, transported, distributed, prepared, consumed, and often disposed of. Each of these steps creates greenhouse gases (GHG) that trap the sun’s heat and contribute to climate change.

We waste 1 billion tons of food every year. That’s a disaster for the planet. About a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is linked to food. Reducing food waste is one of the most accessible, impactful climate solutions.

For many people in the world, food waste has become a habit: buying more food than we need at markets, letting fruits and vegetables spoil at home or taking/ordering larger portions than we can eat. Habits like those put extra strain on our natural resources and damage our environment. When we waste food, we waste the labor, effort, investment and precious resources (water, seeds, feed, etc.) that go into producing it, in addition to the resources that go into transporting and processing it. The result: wasting food increases GHG emissions and contributes to climate change.

Wasted food, no matter the cause, ultimately ends up in landfills, where it generates methane, an invisible, odorless gas with more than 80 times more warming power in the near-term than carbon dioxide, effectively helping accelerate climate change.

By some accounts, 20% of total GHG emissions annually is linked to food production. which means that agriculture contributes more than any other sector, including energy and transportation, to climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN estimates that if food waste were a country, its GHG emissions would be the third highest in the world! Another way to look at the issue: Most of us generate more planet-warming emissions from eating than we do from driving or flying.

Reducing food loss and waste presents a simple. accessible opportunity for immediate climate benefits while simultaneously improving the overall sustainability of our food systems — a necessary transformation to ensure better planetary and nutritional outcomes for current and future generations.

It’s up to each of us to change our habits to make not wasting food a way of life! In the U.S. and beyond, food is wasted along all parts of the supply chain. A variety of local strategies and tools can be used to tackle this issue, including preventing food waste, connecting wholesome excess food to those who need it, and composting food scraps. People often wonder what they as individuals can possibly do to aid the world in the fight against climate change. Here are some easy actions you can take to re-connect to food and help the planet:

Buy only what you need: Plan your meals. Make a shopping list and stick to it, and avoid impulse buys: waste less food, and save money!

Pick ugly fruit and vegetables: Oddly-shaped or bruised fruits and vegetables are often thrown away because they don’t meet arbitrary cosmetic standards. Don’t worry – they taste the same! Use mature fruit for smoothies, juices and desserts.

Understand food labelling: There’s a big difference between “best before” and “use-by” dates. Sometimes food is still safe to eat after the “best before” date, whereas it’s the “use-by” date that tells you when it is no longer safe to eat.

Start small: Take smaller portions at home or share large dishes at restaurants.

Love your leftovers: If you don’t eat everything you make, freeze it for later or use the leftovers as an ingredient in another meal. You also can use your leftovers and food scraps to start a compost pile; Then use that rich organic matter to fertilize your own vegetable garden.

Changing our habits regarding food production and consumption is one very simple, but important, thing each of us can do! Every citizen can be part of the solution to combat climate change through thoughtful food consumption and processing of food wastes.

Until next time, be kind to your Mother Earth.