It’s easy not to think about food waste when your rotting tomatoes and days-old casserole dishes are hidden away in the back of the refrigerator—out of sight, out of mind. But when it comes time to clean it out, you have to face a lot of waste food, money and the resources that took to produce it. While food waste has made a rapid rise in terms of public awareness recently, new research suggests that the future effect could end up accelerating climate changeat a worrisome rate in coming years.
According to a study released Thursday by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, food waste could account for about a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“Agriculture is a major driver of climate change, accounting for more than 20 percent of overall global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2010,” Prajal Pradhan, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “Avoiding food loss and waste would therefore avoid unnecessary greenhouse-gas emissions and help mitigate climate change.”
Around the world, about one-third of all food that’s produced is either lost or wasted every year. While farmers and grocery stores throw out tons of bruised fruits and misshapen vegetables that don’t meet the industry’s strict cosmetic standards, consumers are the culprits for wasting the most food. American households toss about $144 billion worth of produce and other items annually. In the UK, a study found that people were throwing out twice as much food as they originally thought—about $85 worth, to be exact.
The majority of food waste ends up in landfills where it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.
In the U.S., 97 percent of food waste goes to landfills. But the climate change impacts of food don’t end at the dump—the researchers note that the agricultural industry as a whole is contributing to a warming planet.
“Agricultural production in general produces emissions, for example, by land conversion or overuse of fertilizer,” Jurgen Kropp, lead author of the study, told The Christian Science Monitor in an emailed statement. The study details that as the demand for food grows, especially in wealthier countries, overproduction is likely to emit greater amounts of greenhouse gases.
The study also warns that growing economies like China and India could significantly increase the level of greenhouse gas emissions from food waste overtime as welfare increases and diets start moving toward animal-based products. The World Health Organization predicts that meat production will increase to 376 millions tons by 2030, up from 318 million tons in 2015. With rich countries already wasting millions of tons of food, these developments could potentially undermine efforts to combat climate change.
However, by adopting better food management systems, researchers say that up to 14 percent of all agricultural emissions in 2050 could be avoided.
“Emissions related to discarded food are just the tip of the iceberg,“ Pradhan said. “Changing individual behavior could be one key towards mitigating the climate crisis.”