Not convinced from our previous blog that unwasting has a significant impact on your carbon footprint? This blog should seal the deal. It turns out that the last stage in our food’s journey - the farm - is where the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions often take place in fresh produce supply chains (FAO), which means that when you unwaste food, a lot of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions you’re avoiding happen furthest upstream.
Maybe you’ve visited a farm or tried growing food at home. In addition to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into those cherry tomatoes by your windowsill or the apple tree in your backyard, there are lots of other inputs you need. So you clear space to plant, mix the seeds with soil, quench their thirst with water, feed them with fertilizer, and more. And if you waste your precious bounty, you know just how much else was wasted too. Or do you? One way or another, greenhouse gas emissions were generated to produce all of these inputs. And while some are more emission-intensive than others (more about that in a bit), they all are for naught if the food they grow goes to waste. Preventing your apples from browning sounds a bit juicier, huh?
Making this connection between food waste and climate change is even more challenging when the farm is out of sight and out of mind. You might not daydream about the farm as you peruse the local grocery store for your crunchy kale or tropical mangoes. But a farmer somewhere had to put in the work and the necessary inputs to grow that food, and all of those inputs plus the GHG emissions they require are on the line. If you keep your guard up and enjoy that produce before it starts to shrivel away, you’re unwasting the food while also preventing unnecessary GHG emissions upstream.
Ever heard of nitrous oxide (N2O)? Some say it’s the forgotten greenhouse gas as the third-largest greenhouse gas emission, behind carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Nitrous oxide emissions are 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide in their warming effect, and roughly 75% of all nitrous oxide emissions are from the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers in agriculture (EPA). Unwasting your fresh produce helps avoid additional nitrous oxide emissions, but that’s not all! The water for irrigation isn’t free of climate impacts either. Unless you’re relying solely on rain, significant energy is needed to pump, collect, store and transport water from its source to where our plants need it to grow. The laundry list of emission-intensive inputs that go to waste when your food ends up in the trash, such as diesel to operate farm machinery, can go on and on, but we think you get the picture.
One emission-intensive input that is even less intuitive is the land needed to grow our food. Agriculture already uses nearly half of the world’s vegetated land (WRI). Like how you pull weeds to clear backyard space for your zucchini seeds or Marie Kondo your kitchen counter to house basil plants, we often need to use more land to grow more food.
When land is converted from natural habitats, like forests, into farmland, the removal of plants and other organic matter releases carbon in the form of greenhouse gas emissions (FAO). And while vertical farming may seem like a promising way to avoid the emissions generated by land clearing, there are trade-offs. Indoor agriculture requires significant energy for heating and lighting, which comes with its own greenhouse gas emissions unless the facility can be powered entirely on renewables (WWF). All of this is to say: more food waste means more land used, and finding more land usually means greater GHG emissions. So when you unwaste, you avoid both land clearing AND the GHG emissions associated with deforestation.
Considering that most of the emissions generated during fresh food production are to grow food that is thrown away doesn’t make us feel peachy. And until we can grow more food on less land and reduce the input intensity of agriculture, pickling our produce or prioritizing fridge feng shui is one the best things you can be doing to mitigate climate change.
This series has been connecting food waste and climate change at each stage in the food supply chain, starting with the trash can all the way upstream to the farm. Stay tuned for next time when we bring this all together and show how unwasting at home is a crucial solution to mitigating climate change.
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