1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Climate-killing food waste addressed at UN talks

November 16, 2022

A third of the food we produce is wasted, emitting as much as 10% of global greenhouse gases. Failed targets to reduce food waste — especially in rich nations — need to be urgently updated at COP27, says UN.

Rotting fruit and vegetables
Rotting food that lands in dumps is a major contributor to CO2Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. May

Too little is being done to reduce the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted or lost annually on fields, in retail and at home, according to the UN.

This squandered grub, which amounts to over 30% of all food produced globally, accounts for a tenth of the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.

Yet just 36 countries have committed to some form of food loss or waste reduction in their national climate targets — or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — according to Haseeb Bakhtary, a senior consultant specializing in food systems at climate policy consultancy, Climate Focus.

"There is clearly more recognition of the importance of food loss and waste in addressing climate change," said Bakhtary, whose co-authored report on finding climate solutions in food systems was published ahead of the current UN climate talks. "But many countries – mostly the industrialized Global North countries where food waste is a key source of GHG emissions – are ignoring this climate solution."

In response, environment groups, UN agencies and climate campaigners announced a 123 Pledge at COP27 that aims to revive Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, established in 2015, to halve food waste by 2030.

The aim of the pledge coordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is to get countries and businesses to make new, more ambitious commitments to reducing the amount of food that never makes it to our plates.

"Now is the time to act globally," said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director at UNEP's economy division. "Countries with long track records of measuring and cutting food loss and waste should support countries getting started on this journey. Companies should be mainstreaming best practices throughout their operations worldwide. And every one of us can act now, at home and at work."

Why one third of our food goes to waste

Multinational company Unilever, for example, has committed to halving food waste in its direct operations by 2025. The Netherlands has committed to pursuing the 2030 target through its "Farm-to-Fork" strategy, also a central pillar of the European Green Deal, by reducing food waste at the consumption and retail level.

Cold storage can limit food spoilage

One major cause of food loss in developing countries is poor preservation due to lack of cold storage for agricultural produce.

Inadequate refrigeration and an ineffective "cold chain" resulted in the loss of around 526 million tons of food production — or 12% of the food produced globally — in 2017, according to a UNEP and FAO report released this week at COP27.

This is enough food to feed around one billion people. Some 811 million people currently face hunger globally, said the report.

Food lost through lack of refrigeration amounts to about 2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, rotting food emits methane, which is about 80 times more potent than CO2, although it doesn't remain in the atmosphere for as long.

Projects to create better cold chains are bearing fruit, including in India where kiwi losses were reduced by 76% through increased refrigerated transport, according to the report. In Nigeria, the installation of 54 solar-powered walk-in cold rooms preserved 42,024 tons of food while doubling incomes for farmers, retailers and wholesalers across the supply chain.

"At a time when the international community must act to address the climate and food crises, sustainable food cold chains can make a massive difference," said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, in a statement. "They allow us to reduce food loss, improve food security, slow greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, reduce poverty and build resilience — all in one fell swoop."

'Political will' lacking to tackle food loss and waste

While such programs offer hope, delegates at COP27 want to see governments make a much stronger commitment to reversing waste and loss at both the supply and household level — especially in developed nations such as the US, where up to 50% of all food is thrown away.

While the 123 Pledge aims to reinvigorate the UN pledge to halve food waste by 2030, there is little chance the target will be met, according to reporting by Reuters.

This is partly because food waste has actually increased since 2015 in countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand, which already waste the most, according to Reuters.

A worker at a shipping yard
Good refrigerated transport is required to keep food fresh from farm to plateImage: imagebroker/imago stock&people

That so few countries have so far committed to reducing food waste in national climate targets is symbolic of a lack of "political will," said Danielle Nierenberg, cofounder of Food Tank, a US-based NGO devoted to sustainable food systems.

This is despite the fact it is "low hanging fruit" when it comes to cutting national emissions, Nierenberg told DW from COP27.

She said action to "prevent that loss from going into landfill" can significantly help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "over a very short period of time."

"If companies make commitments, if consumers make commitments, and of course, if policymakers and governments make commitments," the change can be almost immediate, she added.

Tim Schauenberg contributed reporting.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker and Jennifer Collins

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.