Cop26: Why the Little Emphasis on Food Waste?

(Photo: FAD Magazine)

By Matthew Russell – Contributor

“It’s a big and thorny issue and we are astonished it hasn’t been addressed more formally at COP26.” (James Persad, from Webb, 2021)

November 13th of this year saw Glasgow’s COP26 come to an end. It resulted in the formation of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which was negotiated through a consensus of the attending representatives. The pact was the first to make a clear commitment to decreasing coal use. It featured language that promoted greater immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and offered additional climate finance to help developing countries adjust to the effects of climate change.

Albeit the conference ended with a less precise resolution than some would have hoped. A food charity that aims to reduce food waste in the UK, known as FareShare, has called on politicians that attended COP26 to increase their emphasis on food waste reduction. Sally Webb (2021) quotes James Persad, the Head of Marketing and Engagement at FareShare, when he asserts “Even if you take all the other big emitters out of the picture, food production alone would push the earth past 1.5 degrees of warming—yet food waste has effectively been frozen out of talks at COP26.”

The answer to this question remains vacant: Why, given the environmental impact of food waste, does it not garner the same level of attention as issues like emissions and ocean pollution? Mr Persad responds “The honest answer is I just don’t know… I don’t know if it’s because food is taken for granted.”

Food waste is a major issue which is only worsening. According to the latest statistics, 40% of all food produced goes uneaten. That’s around 1.3 billion tonnes of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, fish, and grains that never leave the field, get lost or ruined during distribution, or reach grocery stores and restaurants. It could provide enough calories to feed the world’s undernourished people. When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. Discarded food equates to squandered resources: the energy, water, and land utilised to grow unwanted food are also squandered. Replacing wild lands with crops and emitting massive volumes of needless greenhouse gases is immensely detrimental for climate change and biodiversity. The production of lost or discarded food in the United States alone produces the equivalent of 32.6 million automobiles’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Wasted food isn’t just an environmental concern either—it’s an economic one also. Christina Gayton (2019) contends that a significant amount of money is wasted in the production of food that is never consumed. Furthermore, the wasted labour, material resources, time, and energy that go into food production must be considered. Although estimating the potential economic advantages of shifting these resources is practically impossible, the situation carries considerable implications. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reportedly approximated that there have been annual losses of $1 trillion from resource costs.

(Image: YouGov)

Kathy Frankovic (2015) found in an Economist/YouGov poll that even though a slight number of Democrats value the protection of the environment over economic growth, a strong majority of 63% argue that both key policy areas maintain equal importance. Furthermore, Republicans value the growth of the economy approximately twelve times more than protection of the environment. This poll demonstrates to us the salience of the economy in the United States—few Americans are willing to put environmental protection ahead of economic development.

The question we return to is why? Why do politicians, and people, cast little emphasis on the significant impact that food waste has on the environment, even in spite of its economic hinderance? Could it be a matter of ignorance?

Oddbox London, an anti-food waste organisation that sells ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables that would typically be discarded by supermarkets, seems to assert this as a matter of ignorance as they state that only a considerably small portion of society are aware of the implications that abundant food waste has on the environment—following a survey where it was estimated that 55% of people were unaware of the severity of its impact.

Accordingly, Oddbox London is going through significant efforts to raise awareness of this crucial food wasting problem. In September, the organisation announced a campaign that took its ideals a step further. The business stated that it had ‘created’ a new country and applied to join the UN to raise awareness of the issue of food waste by making it more visible for individuals and governments alike. The country, dubbed ‘Wasteland’, is known as the “most dangerous country you’ve never heard of”. It is estimated that the proposed country is 6.3 million km² in size, and its annual emissions are 5 billion metric tonnes of CO2e, which would make it responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the campaign, Oddbox London asserts that if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest contributor to climate change, trailing only China and the United States.

(Image: Iberdrola)

Perhaps the YouGov poll results conveyed by Frankovic (2015) demonstrate the acute unawareness of the American population on the severity of climate change—implying their unawareness of food waste pollution. However, I contend that this explanation does not directly clarify why politicians did not address food waste more formally during COP26. Instead, I would argue that the unawareness of the population on the specific issue lays the foundation for politicians to ignore such a matter—despite being aware themselves. Ultimately, politicians are representatives of the people. If the people are not aware of an issue—and under the assumption that politicians are not entirely self-interested—then it can be claimed that it would be rare for such a politician to prioritise this issue. Instead, their focus will be on addressing the environmental issues with the most prominent public attention at COP26.

Indeed, the aforementioned clarification can be reverted into question by the consequential impact of food waste on the economy. It could be denoted that politicians would formally address food waste at COP26 regardless of public attention should they be aware of its negative economic impact—as the economy is crucial to almost, if not every politician.

Despite the question of why such an issue remains with little emphasis, the pellucid solution to this issue would be to raise awareness amongst the public—which can be seen in campaigns such as Oddbox London’s ‘Wasteland’. Albeit, raising awareness is much easier said than done.


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