Cutting Carbon While Feeding People: The Role of Food Rescue in Slowing Climate Change

Posted on December 11, 2019 by Adam Kahn

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that up to 40% of all food in the United States is wasted, even as 40 million Americans lack consistent access to adequate and nutritious food. Donation of useable food has palpable and obvious social benefits.  Recovering (or rescuing) edible food from restaurants, groceries and institutions that would otherwise go to waste can help “bridg[e] the gap between abundance and need.”  Reduction in food waste (through food rescue or otherwise) will also yield big reductions in carbon emissions.

From an environmental regulatory perspective, managing food that has been deemed unsalable has traditionally been considered a solid waste problem.  Four northeastern states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont) and California limit the disposal of “food waste” or other organics in conventional waste streams that go to landfills or waste to energy facilities.  Getting usable food out of the waste stream, for the most part, satisfies most existing regulatory schemes, regardless of how it is done.  However, these rules do not create a clear preference or incentive for “rescuing” food so that it can be eaten by people. 

This is not to suggest that regulators are ignoring benefits of food waste reduction in setting solid waste policy.  The USDA and US EPA have presented inverse pyramids of priorities for preventing or diverting wasted food; food rescue is number two, right after prevention of food waste at the production level.   These efforts and similar efforts may be having some effect:  In my home state of Massachusetts, the current draft Solid Waste Master Plan appropriately highlights the 60% increase in rescue of fresh and perishable food between 2010 and 2018.  The non-profit ReFED has developed an impressive Food Waste Policy Finder that compiles ways in which food wastage can be reduced, and an equally impressive Roadmap to identify cost-effective regulatory, policy, and business solutions to reduce food waste.  Outside of solid waste rules, food waste can be reduced by improving “sell by” or “use by” date labeling requirements, food handling practices and regulations, usage and waste tracking information, packaging and portion sizes, consumer and business education, and donation-related tax incentives.  

Food rescue and other forms of food waste reduction can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that 8-10% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions result from food loss and waste.  In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) similarly found that food wastage accounted for 3.6 billion tons of CO2e, or as FAO put it “if food wastage was a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world” (right after China and the US and right before India and Russia).  Of that figure, about 35% comes in the distribution and consumption phases of the food supply chain, which are the stages where food rescue comes into play.  Similar statistics abound in other reputable publications.

So, what role can environmental law serve to help realize the climate benefits of food rescue, apart from continued improvements in solid waste policy?

Jurisdictions that regulate carbon emissions, or have carbon emission caps or reduction targets, should consider providing tradable credits for rescue of food or other beneficial reuse.  This will be complicated, particularly in the absence of economy-wide regulation of carbon emissions.  Nonetheless, an administrable system would create a new avenue to enable would-be producers of food waste to monetize their good deeds through tradable carbon-avoidance credits.  As a first step to any of this, we should agree on a transparent and understandable standard for measuring the carbon impact from food rescue.  The Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard is one potential example.  Once a methodology is accepted, the carbon benefits of food waste reduction can be quantified and then rewarded. 

Even in the absence of tradable credits, requiring carbon offsets in the form of food waste reduction could form part of a jurisdiction’s larger carbon reduction plan.  For example, state and local regulatory authorities with mandates to minimize environmental impacts could require development projects (particularly those involving the food industry) to offset incremental greenhouse gas emissions through food waste reduction.  Similarly, environmental regulators that retain the ability to consider supplemental environmental projects could consider food waste reduction as part of resolution of environmental enforcement actions.

These ideas will take time and collective will to put in place.  But individual action does not need to wait: reducing food waste today will have carbon benefits today even if no one is measuring, regulating, or rewarding it. 



Comments (1) -

Chris Davis United States
12/11/2019 2:07:43 PM #

An important topic and strategy in helping to solve hunger and climate change!

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