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FAO: Besides Worsening Malnutrition, Massive Food Loss Causes Economic Harm and “Unnecessary CO2 emissions”

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"FAO: Besides Worsening Malnutrition, Massive Food Loss Causes Economic Harm and “Unnecessary CO2 emissions”"

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Stephen Lacey and Tyce Herrman continue our series on agriculture, energy use and climate change.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report last month showing that one third of the world’s food is wasted each year.  Considering that it takes about 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food in America, that’s a lot of energy — and greenhouse gases — for nothing.

Huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vainFood losses represent a waste of resources used in production such as land, water, energy and inputs. Producing food that will not be consumed leads to unnecessary CO2 emissions in addition to loss of economic value of the food produced.

An earlier Climate Progress post on the FAO report addressed the climate and energy implications of food waste – billions of pounds of edible food that are thrown out on the consumer end of the food chain, mostly in developed countries.

The other side of this problem, food loss, occurs primarily in developing countries due to inadequate infrastructure for harvesting and distributing food. (A recent report from Oxfam found that changing food distribution practices in developing countries is one of the most important factors in feeding the world’s projected 9 billion people, stabilizing food prices and addressing climate change by 2030.)

In the FAO report, Assistant Director General Maria Helena Semedo points out that food losses “could meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people.”

These yearly losses occur due to premature harvesting, poor storage facilities, lack of processing facilities and inadequate market systems in which to sell food.

In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.

You can see the stark differences in food waste and food losses in the charts below. Developed countries have far more sophisticated harvesting and distribution channels, thus minimizing waste in those areas. However, the consumption losses (i.e. food waste) are far greater.

 

A newer (and far greater) problem is currently developing: a massive increase in meat and dairy consumption in developing countries. As developing countries start to consume more animal products, the losses in both of these areas — grains and meat — could continue to grow.

Tara Garnett, research fellow at the University of Surrey and director of the GHG emissions and food chain research group at the Food Climate Research Network, sees this exacerbating existing supply chain issues: “We have to address consumption of meat and dairy. It is the biggest user of land and water and biggest contributor to emissions. It is very prone to food losses.”

The graph at the top, put together by the New York Times with data from the United Nations, shows how drastically meat and dairy consumption are growing in developing countries – and how serious the resulting food loss (eventually food waste as they become developed countries) and resulting emissions increases will be.

According to the WorldWatch Institute, global meat production is expected to double by 2050 – an increase that will largely from the developing world:

For more than a decade, the strongest increases in production have been in the developing world-in 1995 more meat and dairy products were produced in developing than in industrial countries for the first time, and this trend has continued ever since.3 In fact, in 2007 at least 60 percent of meat was produced in developing nations.

Developing countries are in a unique position, as they must deal with both food waste and food losses. Economic growth and market sophistication will inevitability lead to increased efficiencies in the production and distribution of food. However, an increased level of prosperity will also lead to more abundant choices — particularly meat and dairy products — which may increase food waste on the consumption side.

As the rest of the world catches up with the energy-intensive lifestyles of industrialized countries, we can’t afford to keep losing so much food to inefficiencies and waste.

— Stephen Lacey and Tyce Herrman

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