Wasted Food Emits Massive Amounts of Greenhouse Gases

By Terrell Johnson
Published: September 18, 2013


When asked to name the causes of climate change, few would imagine that the food we throw out every day is one of the biggest culprits. But it is.

A new report from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization shows that not only is about one-third of the food produced for human consumption every year lost or wasted – it's also the world's third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only the United States and China.

As it rots, wasted food adds the equivalent of more than 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the report estimates, primarily through the release of methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that's more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Most food waste in wealthy, Western countries occurs largely because we throw out leftovers and unused ingredients, the environmental website notes, or when the food farmers grow doesn't meet retailers' "cosmetic expectations" (like misshapen fruit), ensuring it never makes it to the supermarket in the first place.

Beyond its environmental impacts – which include massive volumes of water and land used to produce food that never gets eaten, estimated by the FAO at about 30 percent of the world's agricultural land area – food waste extracts a huge economic toll as well.

In 2007, the FAO estimates that the world produced about $750 billion worth of food that was never consumed, an amount equal to an entire year's gross domestic product for countries the size of Turkey and Switzerland in 2011.

Reducing the amount of food wasted each year could have a major impact on the release of greenhouse gases, one of the main drivers of global warming and climate change. As the online magazine Next Generation Food shows in an infographic titled "The Big Food Wasters," stopping food waste would be the equivalent of taking one of every four cars off the road.

Food waste facts

A few facts on food waste and climate change compiled by the United Nations Environment Program:

  • Roughly one-third of the food produced around the world for human consumption every year – about 1.4 billion tons – is lost or wasted.
  • Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labor and capital and the needless production of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming and climate change.
  • In the U.S., 30 percent of all food – worth more than $48 billion – is thrown away each year. It is estimated that about half the water used to produce this food also goes to waste, because agriculture is the largest human use of water.
  • Organic waste (which includes food) makes up the second-highest component of landfills, one of the largest source of methane emissions.

Read the full report at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

MORE: Searching for Polar Bears in the Arctic

Featured Blogs


By Dr. Jeff Masters
December 21, 2014

No Snow in the eastern US this week - much colder Temps going into New Years...

November 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
December 18, 2014

November was globally the 7th warmest such on record according to NOAA and 8th according to NASA (see Jeff Master’s blog for more about this). It was a cold month in the U.S. with some phenomenal lake-effect snowstorms. A powerful storm, dubbed a ‘Medicane’ formed in the Mediterranean Sea. Deadly floods occurred in Morocco, Italy, and Switzerland. It was the warmest November on record for Australia, Italy, Austria and much of Southeast Asia.Below are some of the month’s highlights.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.