July 20 () –
A new study from the University of Colorado at Boulder (United States) suggests that reducing food loss and waste may not have the environmental benefits expected by researchers, advocates and policy makersbut could increase access to more affordable food for the world population.
For years, eliminating food loss and waste has been promoted as one of the most important steps humans can take to reduce the environmental impact of the food system. And not without reason: Food loss and waste along the supply chain account for up to 24% of greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system and 6% of total emissions worldwide. Total loss and waste worldwide amounts to an average of 527 calories per person per day.
The study, published in the journal Nature Food, suggests that reducing food loss and waste will have fewer environmental benefits than previously thought. Instead, food prices will fall and people will eat more.
For the new work, a CIRES-led team considered all the implications of reducing food loss and waste, using the guidelines set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2021. The study looked at food loss ( damaged or spoiled before reaching retailers) and waste (spoiled or thrown away by consumers or retailers). According to these definitions, loss occurs on the supply side, while waste occurs on the demand side.
Margaret Hegwood, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at CIRES/CU Boulder, explains that to understand the environmental benefits of reducing food waste and loss, one must also consider the bigger picture of reducing waste: More food available would drive prices down, and that would create predictable changes in people’s behavior.
“Let’s say the price of grain goes down thanks to improvements in the efficiency of the food system, now you can afford to eat the same amount more often,” Hegwood adds. Consumers respond to these price declines by buying more than before, offsetting some of the benefits of reducing food loss and waste.“.
The authors used a simple model that looked at supply and demand responses to reducing food waste and loss. “Our model basically formalized ECON 101: Reducing food loss and waste shifts the supply and demand curves, respectively,” says Matt Burgess, study co-author and CIRES/CU adjunct professor. supply and demand to prices – which we get from previous research – then determines how much we project food prices and consumption will change.”
The trade-off is significant, and the authors found that reducing food loss and waste by 100% decreases between 1/2 and 2/3 of the expected environmental benefits.
Although the study models what might happen if food waste and loss were reduced, the authors make no assumptions about how both will be reduced. There are several solutions, and they all depend on the type of food, the region, consumption habits, access to technology, politics, and dietary needs.
Similar studies have looked at the impacts of reducing food loss and waste on a regional or national scale, but Hegwood and Burgess say this is the first study they know of that looks global.
Overall, Hegwood hopes this study can move the debate away from the environmental benefits of reducing food waste and loss and towards recognizing the benefits for food safety.
“I think it’s likely, at least to some degree, that this could mean that our efforts to reduce food loss and waste may not actually be as good for the environment as we think which could be, but it is super beneficial in terms of food safety -he concludes-. And I think it’s very important that people think about it.”