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Food waste massive contributor to global emissions - IPCC

Friday 9th August 2019

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Agriculture, forestry and other land use may be responsible for 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but food waste is also a major culprit, according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

From 2010-2016, global food loss and waste contributed 8-10 percent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions and currently 25-30 percent of total food produced is lost or wasted, the IPCC said in its latest report on climate change and land. 

“Causes of food loss and waste differ substantially between developed and developing countries, as well as between regions. Reducing this loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security,” it said.

New Zealanders throw away 157,389 tonnes of food a year, according to Love Food Hate Waste in Aotearoa, an initiative spearheaded by 60 local councils. That is equivalent to 271 jumbo jets of food that must go somewhere to rot, instead of being eaten, it said, adding the food is worth about $1.17 billion each year. 

Government data show New Zealand retail spending on grocery items, specialist food, liquor, and food and beverage services totalled $35.77 billion in the year ended March 31, more than a third of all retail spending. 

According to the IPCC, tackling climate change needs policies that operate across the entire food system. Policies that reduce food loss and waste and influence dietary choices “enable more sustainable land-use management, enhanced food security and low-emissions trajectories,” it said.

The report warned unsustainable land management has led to negative economic impacts and that climate change creates additional stresses. The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of weather-related food chain disruptions increases. 

“Extreme weather and climate or slow-onset events may lead to increased displacement, disrupted food chains, threatened livelihoods, and contribute to exacerbated stresses for conflict,” it said.

According to the IPCC, the level of risk posed by climate change depends both on the level of warming and on how population, consumption, production, technological development, and land management patterns evolve.

The report noted, however, that land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase.

“There are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation.”

It also said it takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively. Bioenergy needs to be carefully managed to avoid risks to food security, biodiversity and land degradation.

“The world is best placed to tackle climate change when there is an overall focus on sustainability.”

Some options include improved and sustainable food production, improved and sustainable forest management, soil organic carbon management, ecosystem conservation and land restoration, reduced deforestation and degradation, and reduced food loss and waste.

Failing to act, however, will lead to irreversible loss in land ecosystem functions and services required for food, health, habitable settlements and production. That will lead to increasingly significant economic impacts on many countries in many regions of the world, the IPCC said. 

Mike Harvey, Niwa's principal atmosphere scientist, said New Zealand was a leader with early consideration and research on sustainable land management and the implications for greenhouse gas emissions.

However, he noted there were many challenges in meeting emissions reductions while maintaining food security and the long-term productive potential of land. 

"Nationally, we may face the pressures of increased export demand particularly if food supply instabilities increase as predicted with more severe impacts of climate change in some major food-producing regions. The report is very timely," he said. 


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