A new paradigm for food efficiency

Food waste not only exacerbates global hunger, it also contributes to climate change and water scarcity. A seamless global cold chain can help cut food waste significantly, says United Technologies Corporation chief sustainability officer John Mandyck.

refrigerated food bangkok market
Fruit in the refrigerated section of a supermarket in Bangkok, Thailand. Cold chain technology can boost the agricultural economy in many countries and reduce food waste, say experts. Image: Tooykrub / Shutterstock.com

History was made at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris last December, when more than 190 countries adopted a landmark agreement, under which they will commit to lowering greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.

There are a number of strategies that can help nations meet their goals within this framework. One action in particular – reducing food waste – can reduce climate emissions while unlocking solutions for hunger, nutrition, water scarcity, economic expansion and national security.

One-third or more of all food produced today is lost or wasted. Two thirds of food waste and loss occurs at the production and distribution level, with the remaining one third at the consumer level.

Meanwhile, more than 800 million people go hungry every day. Food waste also has a devastating environmental impact, from the water wasted when we throw food away to its associated greenhouse gas emissions. 

We already produce and grow enough food to feed 10 billion people. Yet on a planet of 7 billion people, only about 6 billion are getting enough food. That’s the tremendous inefficiency – and opportunity – before us.

Food waste, climate emissions and water scarcity

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization just revised upward its estimate of the carbon footprint of food waste, from 3.3 gigatons to a staggering 3.6 gigatons of CO2 per year. That’s the energy used to produce food that’s never eaten, including fuel for tractors used for planting and harvest, electricity for water pumps in the field and the power for processing and packaging facilities. This squarely places food waste third in the world for greenhouse gas emissions if measured as a country.

Beyond energy, food waste also places undue stress on water, a critical resource. The irrigated water used to grow the food we waste is more than the irrigated water used by any country.

With the global population forecast to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, it doesn’t make sense to continue with this current paradigm, which is to grow more food to try and feed more people, while simultaneously throwing out more food each year. We must implement readily available solutions that can help us waste less to feed more people.

Food waste in Asia

Food waste in Asia occurs across the continent. Industrialized Asia accounts for 28 per cent of global food loss and South and Southeast Asia 22 per cent; in sum, Asia is home to 50 per cent of total food loss.

Asia grows and consumes more than half of the world’s vegetables, a category representing some 15 per cent of total global loss. Cereals add another 15 per cent. Asia and Europe together also lose massive amounts of starchy roots such as potatoes, amounting to 13 per cent of global food loss.

Overall, vegetables, fruit, dairy, seafood and meat represent more than half of all food that is lost or wasted. These five categories have one thing in common – the shelf life of this food can be extended with existing refrigeration technology, which, when used during transportation and storage, is an essential part of the modern cold chain.

The modern cold chain

The cold chain is not just a collection of cooling technologies that preserve perishable products, but an intensive, value-added process that seeks to extend shelf life, protect the safety and integrity of products, reduce food loss and enhance global food security.

A seamless cold chain would measurably reduce food waste. However, only a tenth of perishable foods are refrigerated worldwide.

A seamless cold chain would measurably reduce food waste. However, only a tenth of perishable foods are refrigerated worldwide.

Cold chain technology can also boost economies. According to the University of Nottingham, India produces 28 per cent of the world’s bananas, yet represents just 0.3 per cent of all internationally traded bananas.

An upgraded cold chain could help Indian farmers properly package and preserve their bananas for export, enabling the country to increase the number of containers of bananas exported from 3,000 to 190,000. This would provide an additional 95,000 jobs and benefit up to 34,600 smallholder farmers.

As the cold chain evolves and expands, so too do the technologies available to reduce its environmental footprint, helping the cold chain become more energy-efficient. The Global Food Cold Chain Council, with support from United Technologies, commissioned modelling analysis to examine the greenhouse gas impact of expanding the cold chain to reduce food waste in developing countries. In all modelling scenarios, the emissions savings achieved when food waste is reduced through cold chain expansion outweighed the newly created greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of 10.

If emerging economies adopted cold chain technologies to the same level as developed countries, the carbon footprint of food waste due to a lack of refrigeration could be reduced by more than 50 per cent.

Waste less, feed more

What we need is an Age of Food Efficiency where we efficiently distribute the food we already grow to more people without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

And as we tackle food waste, we can learn lessons from the energy conservation movement. The last 20 years was the age of energy efficiency, where technology enabled an increase in energy distribution and use without new power plants or an increase in emissions around the world. Food conservation must be every bit as important as energy conservation. With the Age of Food Efficiency, we can waste less to feed more with big dividends to the environment.

Practical solutions must be supported by a greater global dialogue. The Global Food Cold Chain Council is a group of food refrigeration system manufacturers and suppliers, who discuss ways to green the cold chain, lower its carbon footprint and reduce food loss.

Similarly, we need continued efforts like the recent World Cold Chain Summit, held in Singapore from 2 – 3 December 2015, which convened 131 delegates from 33 nations, including global leaders in the supply chain private sector, academia, and government to discuss and develop scalable, sustainable solutions to reduce food loss and waste.

Governments also have an opportunity to create and enforce food safety standards. This will ensure proper transport and storage of perishable foods like meat, fish, and dairy, expanding the global food supply and reducing food waste-related environmental impacts.

Last year, the United States set a national food waste reduction goal of 50 per cent by 2030. The United Nations also included a target to reduce food waste as part of its Sustainable Development Goals. We can all do our part to help meet these goals by making changes in our own behaviour.

Let’s buy only what we need so we throw away less. Let’s recognize that imperfect food is just as nutritious and delicious as perfectly shaped food. Little changes in our behaviour will yield measurable results.  

The time is now to act, as the low-hanging fruit for climate protection is literally rotting. Even saving a portion of what is wasted can have a dramatic impact on reducing hunger, malnutrition, poverty, political instability, water shortages and carbon emissions. Working together, we can drive the Age of Food Efficiency forward and secure the future of food.

John Mandyck serves as Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Corporation. This post was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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