UN Climate Report Underscores Need to Eat Food We Grow

Experts are again warning of the dire impacts of climate change if we don’t act fast with the release of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—this time focused on the role of land-use decisions. Among other things, the IPCC Lands report makes clear that the food system is a significant driver of climate change, but that it can also be a vital part of the solution.

Key to solving the climate crisis is not only reducing the consumption of fossil fuels but reducing the amount of food that goes to waste. That’s because up to 40% of food in the U.S. and one-third of food globally is never eaten.  When good food goes to waste, so do the water, pesticides, fertilizers, energy, packaging and labor it takes to get to our plates.

Not only is that expensive (it costs the average family of four $1,500 and the U.S. economy more than $200 billion per year), it has enormous environmental impacts. In fact, if the food wasted around the globe were a country, it would have the 3rd highest climate footprint on the planet behind only China and the U.S. Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills, where it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Nearly 20% of U.S. cropland is used to grow food we don’t eat.

Since consumers are the largest single source of wasted food in the U.S., our actions in our kitchens and in the grocery aisle can have a big impact. By taking small steps—such as buying only what we actually need, storing food to maximize its shelf life, and eating leftovers—we can be a big part of solution. NRDC’s Save The Food campaign with the Ad Council has a host of easy ideas for consumers at  SaveTheFood.com.

While consumers have enormous potential to fight climate change with their forks, we also need action from our lawmakers and food businesses to make the climate-friendly choice the easy choice. 

Food service giant Aramark, for instance, has committed to cut their food waste by 50% by 2030 as have companies ranging from Campbell’s to Kellogg’s and Hilton Hotels. Other companies should adopt similarly aggressive targets and strong implementation plans to reach them.

Federal lawmakers can also help by taking steps like reducing confusion around date labels on food (such as “Enjoy By” and “Use By”). Legislation was introduced last week that would do just that by standardizing date labels and educating consumers so that they can enjoy the food they have purchased rather than tossing it prematurely. Passing this bill can help the more than 80 percent of Americans who unnecessarily throw food away because of confusing date labels on food.

Cities like Denver, Baltimore and Nashville are also taking leadership to set food waste reduction targets, prevent wasted food, boost donation of surplus food to those in need, and compost food scraps.

Put simply: When we use land to grow food, we should eat it, not waste it. It not only saves money, it saves land and may just save our future.

About the Authors

JoAnne Berkenkamp

Senior Advocate, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Elizabeth Balkan

Director, Food Waste; Food & Agriculture Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.