When most people think of the causes of climate change, the issue of food waste likely doesn’t come to mind.

A recent study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact Research (PIK) shows that if current trends continue, food waste will account for roughly a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that “up to one third of all food is spoiled or squandered before it is consumed by people.”

Food is lost or wasted throughout the process from farm, to store/restaurant, and to households. However, the vast majority of food waste is caused by average consumers. An alarming statistic shows that Americans waste roughly $144 billion worth on an annual basis. In the United States, 97% of food waste ends up in landfills.

One of the most problematic issues with food waste is that it releases methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.  Every ton of food wasted results in 3.8 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The agricultural industry as a whole has a major impact on climate change. Co-author of the PIK study, Prajal Pradhan, states that “agriculture is a major driver of climate change, accounting for more than 20% of overall global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Avoiding food loss and waste would therefore avoid unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and help mitigate climate change.”

The study shows that while developing countries account for most food losses due to less efficient agricultural systems, food waste is most prevalent in wealthier countries. The growth of developing countries is associated with a rise in income and urbanization, both linked to being driving forces of increased reliance on animal-based products. With the increasing pressure on livestock, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that meat production will “increase from 218 million tons in 1997-1999 to 376 million tons by 2030.” This is likely to contribute to a significant rise in greenhouse gas emissions from food waste, unless drastic preventative measures are taken.

However, hope remains that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced. Pradhan explains that “it is quite astounding that up to 14% of overall agricultural emissions in 2050 could easily be avoided by a better management of food utilisation and distribution. Changing individual behavior could be one key towards mitigating the climate crisis.”

It’s a sad situation that on a global scale there is more than enough food being produced yet such a large portion of the world’s population suffers from starvation and malnutrition.

The FAO states that “it is an excess in an age where almost a billion people go hungry, and represents a waste of the labour, water, energy, land and other inputs that went into producing that food.”

It is important for people living in wealthier countries, responsible for the majority of food waste, to adopt more sustainable and less wasteful food management systems.

“Avoiding food loss could pose a leverage to various challenges at once, reducing environmental impacts of agriculture, saving resources used in food production, and enhance local, regional, and global food security,” co-author Jürgen Kropp says.