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Upgrading cold storage comes with global climate benefits—and nuanced local tradeoffs

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Upgrading cold storage comes with global climate benefits—and nuanced local tradeoffs

A new study found, for example, that in some places, hyperlocal food systems could actually trump cold chains in reducing food waste.
June 7, 2024

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A new study points to the enormous potential of refrigeration to almost halve global food waste. This could have a monumental impact on greenhouse gas emissions and food insecurity. But countries may have to settle for a trade-off between these two goals, depending on their priorities, researchers say.  What’s more, cold chains may not always be the most sustainable solution to the global challenge of food waste, they warn.

Much of the food farmed around the world lacks cold chain storage, with farmers, transporters, suppliers, and retailers instead having to chance it and hope that food arrives at its destination in an edible state. This leads to gigantic losses of 1.3 gigatons each year, which is an estimated one-third of all the food that’s produced annually. That missing produce signifies 4.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent each year, an astounding waste, considering that an estimated 800 million people suffer from hunger. 

So, to identify hotspots of food waste, as well as opportunities to fix it, the new University of Michigan-led study pooled together large datasets on food waste and loss worldwide, including some of the most robust from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They looked specifically at the stages between harvest and retail in their work, and used this data to build a food loss estimation tool, which geographically models how the picture would change, if better cold chains became available.

An upgrade in cold chain technology across the world would bring remarkable benefits, the tool revealed, cutting down food loss and waste from 1.3 billion metric tons to 620 million—slashing it by almost 50%—and cutting associated emissions by 41%. That amount of food is responsible for 1.8 gigatons of COs-equivalent annually, signifying enormous lost potential if it never reaches a plate. 

But zoomed in, these broad figures conceal a lot of variation across the globe. The vast majority of the loss and waste occurring between harvest and retail takes place in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. If refrigeration was optimized across these regions, South and Southeast Asia would save 83 billion kilograms of fruits and veg, 53 billion kilograms of cereals, and 48 billion kg of dairy products, cutting food loss and waste overall by a striking 45%. In Africa, food waste could be cut by 46 billion kilos of meat, and 48 billion kilos of roots and tubers—savings that could result in an even larger overall food waste reduction of 47%. 

 

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There’s more nuance to solving this problem, however, than simply cutting as much food waste as possible. That’s a mammoth task, and so countries are likely to be guided by specific goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or tackling hunger and food insecurity. The challenge is that these two goals may involve a trade-off, the research findings suggest. 

Countries that aim to cut food waste to boost food access and nutrition would do well to focus on tackling the loss of fresh fruit and vegetables, which make up the lion’s share of global food loss at 30% and could provide nourishment to millions if they reach their intended consumers. But taking that path would come with an emissions trade-off, because relatively speaking the greenhouse gas impact they represent across the whole food system is small, at just 9%. 

Meanwhile, meat losses account for less than 10% of physical food loss and waste worldwide, yet these dominate the emissions pie at 50%. So clearly, limiting meat loss would be a priority for a country that wants to tackle its greenhouse gas output.

The supply chain had other nuances for the researchers to dig into. The study’s guiding premise is that globally, food has to travel long distances to reach its consumers, endangering that produce on its long and bumpy journey. But that assumption that may not always be true, nor necessary in some cases. 

In fact, the analytical modeling tool allowed the research team to explore how an optimized global cold chain compared to systems of hyperlocal food provision, where food is farmed and distributed within a much smaller radius. 

They found that in some places, hyperlocal food systems could actually trump cold chains in keeping losses down. This was especially true in certain developing countries, where significant amounts of food could be saved by keeping supply chains relatively short. 

The study has one significant limitation, which is that it does not consider the emissions impact of energy-intensive refrigeration systems in its calculation, which might offset some of the benefits of preserving food. But, neither does the study consider the global emissions that arise from food rotting on farmland or in landfills: it looks only at the parts of the supply chain between those two extremes, and so its emissions estimates may be conservative in that sense.

There is clearly enormous potential for worldwide refrigeration to cut back on waste. To aid in that, the researchers have made their modeling tool open access for governments, NGOs and farmers to use. That could help reveal where cold chain tech has real potential—and what its limits are.

“An ‘optimized’ food system does not inherently mean highly globalized and industrialized for all products,” the researchers explain in their work. “While cold chain deployment can reduce food losses, it should accompany, rather than displace, robust, well-functioning localized food systems.”

Friedman-Heiman et. al. “The impact of refrigeration on food losses and associated greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain.” Environmental Research Letters.

Image: Unsplash

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