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December 07, 2023

Reducing food loss and waste: A hidden solution to the climate crisis

Question: What does food have to do with climate change?

Answer: A lot.

Previously misunderstood or ignored for too long, there’s now a growing awareness of the integral connection between global food systems and the climate crisis.

We see the link in the surge of storms and floods that disrupt food supplies. We see it with extreme heat and droughts that devastate agricultural production. We see it in the rise of diseases and pests, like locusts, that harm livestock and crops.

Meanwhile, food production and waste also contribute to the dangerous emissions that are driving the climate crisis. Shockingly, the global food and agriculture system is responsible for nearly one-third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Sadly, the twin challenges of hunger and climate change are acute. Up to 783 million people faced hunger worldwide in 2022, with a clear overlap between hunger hot spots and locations that are vulnerable to climate extremes.

A global momentum

The connection between food and climate is increasingly on the agendas of international forums, like the annual UN climate conference.

At COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, countries for the first time recognised the importance of food systems through the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration. This declaration, along with events like the UN Food System Summit, has elevated the role of the food system among government officials.

At COP28 in Dubai, world leaders and negotiators will again come together to make progress on climate action. COP28 represents an opportunity for countries to make clear their commitment to drive progress on the food agenda, one of the pillars of the current COP Presidency.

Tackling food loss and waste

Can countries really make progress on the food system transformation? The answer is, yes.

One overlooked opportunity is addressing food loss and waste. We already know that one-third of all the food produced ends up lost or wasted, not only affecting food security, but when taken in total, producing about 8-10 per cent of global GHG emissions.

Methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas more damaging in the near term than carbon dioxide, are particularly important. Reducing food loss and waste can cut overall emissions, specifically methane produced from degraded food.

At COP26, countries signed the Global Methane Pledge, agreeing to reduce their collective methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 (compared to 2020). As of September 2023, 150 countries had endorsed the pledge.

As we look to COP28, here are ways that countries and other actors can spur a shift in the global food system:

1) All countries have been invited to sign onto the Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Action. The number of countries that do so will provide a strong indication of whether governments are ready to take on the food system transformation.

2) Countries can include specific commitments to shift their food systems, including addressing food loss and waste, in their national climate strategies, known as NDCs. So far, only 21 countries currently mention food loss and waste in these strategies. As countries look to update these plans in 2025, they should commit to reduce emissions from the food sector and deliver benefits for people and nature.

3) Governments and multilateral organisations can increase financial support for the food system transformation. Despite the agriculture and food sector representing one-third of emissions, it receives just 4 per cent of climate finance funds, around USD 2.8 billion per year. The food transformation should receive more investment to shift incentives for climate-smart food production, particularly for smallholder farmers. 

4) Countries should translate global commitments into national policies, including on food loss and waste. The Global FoodBanking Network's (GFN) partnership with the Harvard Food and Policy Law Center has assessed how different countries are encouraging food distribution through national laws and regulations, which is critical to accelerate surplus food collection and distribution. Through this project, GFN and the FPLC have supported 20 countries to enact such laws. More countries should adopt such policies.

5) Civil society organisations and consumers must push for changes in food systems to better benefit people and the planet. A Non-State Actors Call to Action letter at COP28 offers a key moment for these groups to publicly urge governments to transform food systems.

But can we really cut food loss and waste? The answer is, unreservedly, yes.

We have seen this firsthand. GFN has worked with food banks to collect surplus food and re-distribute it to people in need for over 15 years. In 2022, GFN’s network of food banks in nearly 50 countries provided food access to over 32 million people.

About two-thirds of the food that was distributed would otherwise have ended up in landfills. Consequently, food banks helped prevent 1.5 billion kilograms of CO2e — equivalent to taking 336,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.

Food banks are just one of a growing number of actors, including investors and start-ups, that help get surplus food to people. We know these solutions can work, and they can move us closer to achieving the goal of cutting food loss and waste by 50 per cent by 2030.

What happens at COP28 will signal whether the world is ready to accelerate action on the food system transformation. It’s time for governments and businesses to grab hold of the under-tapped opportunity to reduce food loss and waste, and make a vital step toward lower emissions, greater food access, and a more resilient, sustainable food system.

Gonzalo Muñoz is the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP25 and Chair of the Non-State Actors Pillar of the COP28 Presidency’s Food Systems & Agriculture Agenda. Lisa Moon, is President and CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN).

Header image: Volunteers at Mesa Brasil–SESC, a GFN-supported food bank, unload surplus produce donated from a nearby farm in São Paulo. The food will be distributed to community service organizations and directly to those facing hunger in the city.  (Photo: The Global FoodBanking Network/Carlos Macedo)