As we teased in our last post of this series, to really understand why reducing food waste helps fight climate change, we should follow our food’s eventful journey before it arrives in the grocery store. When you peruse the produce aisle, you might see glimpses of your food’s past on its stickers or labels. Have you ever noticed that fresh spinach is recommended to “Keep Refrigerated” or that juicy cherries are often labeled as a “Product of Washington”? While you might find that your fridge is full of more passport stamps than you have, these labels serve as a reminder of all that goes into that food’s treacherous expedition to your kitchen. Turns out that when food turns into waste, all the resources used and emissions generated during distribution are wasted too.
When an apple is picked from a tree or a tomato is cut from a vine, the consumption countdown starts ticking, and we have limited time to eat that perishable and delicious piece of produce before it’s too late. In a race to beat the clock, the fresh food industry uses a number of methods to get the food from “farm to fork” without it spoiling.
To combat perishability, our food system relies on quick but fuel-intensive modes of transportation — like trains, trucks and planes — to ensure our fresh food reaches the grocery store with enough time for it to be sold and eaten before spoiling. So when you throw away that wrinkly asparagus in the back of your fridge, you’re also wasting all of the transportation emissions it took to haul that asparagus many miles from where it was grown. And for asparagus, these distances and transport emissions can be quite large! Shockingly, over 75% of Europe’s imported asparagus is air freighted due to its short shelf life (Frankowska et. al.). Makes you think twice about storing those precious stalks in water so they don’t turn into waste, huh?
And moving food quickly isn’t the only way supply chains have been systematically set up to prevent perishable food from going to waste. The same way you store your lettuce in the fridge to make it last long enough for that salad two days later, those optimal storage conditions were created throughout the supply chain from when your lettuce was plucked from the farm. Large refrigerated containers, vehicles, and facilities form a series of temperature-controlled steps to keep that lettuce (or avocado, apple, etc.) at the right temperature for freshness during the whole journey. Often referred to as the “cold chain”, this refrigerated infrastructure is vital in preventing spoilage and maintaining the quality of our food during transport to our grocery stores.
If you’ve ever been conscious of how long you keep the refrigerator door open at home to conserve energy, you can imagine how much energy goes into powering the cold chains that move nutritious food all across the globe. In addition to the emissions from this energy use, the refrigerants used in these machines can leak (some estimate that 15% leak out over the lifetime of a refrigerator system (Coulomb, 2008)) and can be way more potent in their contributions to global warming than carbon dioxide or methane (Global Food Cold Chain Council). So what we’re saying is that unwasting that fresh lettuce in the back of your fridge before it ends up as trash is just as effective at reducing energy consumption and the associated climate impacts as minimizing the time you leave that fridge door open. But it’s actually even better! You’re also conserving that energy used for refrigeration before you even picked that lettuce up from the store.
There are a few more things you’d be unwasting from your produce’s distribution stage, like packaging, that we could dive into. But, we think you get the picture. When you waste fresh food in your home, you essentially are wasting all the environmental impacts from distribution too. You might be thinking that the simple solution is just to source all perishable foods locally to cut down on the environmental impacts from transport and cold storage. If you happen to live somewhere with an optimal climate to grow fresh produce year round then maybe you’re on to something! But most of us aren’t so lucky, and the impacts of growing food in non-ideal climate conditions can be much greater than the additional emissions generated during distribution.
In fact, the emissions generated during our food’s distribution stage is oftentimes smaller than the climate impacts that occur on the farm (FAO). In the next blog, we’ll dive into the biggest reason to unwaste and fight climate change: to protect and preserve the precious resources used on the farm and to minimize the climate impacts of our food production systems. See you next time!
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