Eliminating food waste globally could have fewer environmental benefits than thought

21 Juli 2023

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Vast quantities of food are wasted daily around the planet and until this changes sustainable food production and consumption remain elusive. So will our efforts to reduce environmental impacts.

Food loss and waste amount to an average of 527 calories per person a day while they also account for nearly a quarter of global food system greenhouse gas emissions, or 6% of total global emissions.

Yet eliminating all that loss and waste will have less of an environmental impact than assumed, scientists say. They have reached this conclusion after examining food loss (damaged or spoiled before reaching retailers) and food waste (spoiled or thrown away by consumers or retailers).

They have found that retaining more food would lead to lower prices, thereby boosting food security, but  that would create predictable changes in people’s behaviors.

“Let’s say the price of cereals goes down because of improvements in food system efficiency, now you can afford to eat the same amount more often,” says Margaret Hegwood, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder who was the lead author of a study.

“Consumers respond to these price decreases, purchasing more than they had before, which offsets some of the benefits of reducing the food loss and waste,” she adds.

In their model the scientists found that reducing food loss and waste would “shift the supply and demand curves.” “How sensitive supply and demand are to prices – which we get from previous research – then determines how much we project food prices and consumption will change,” explains Matt Burgess, an assistant professor at the university.

Completely eliminating food loss and waste would decrease between a half and two-thirds of predicted environmental benefits globally, according to this paper.

“I think likely, at least to some extent, that this could mean that our efforts to reduce food loss and waste could actually not be as beneficial for the environment as we think they could be, but it’s super beneficial in terms of food security,” Hegwood says. “And I think that is very important for people to think about.”

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