United Nations

Sustainable food cold chains reduce waste, fight climate change: UN report

Greater investment in sustainable food cold chains is needed to reduce hunger, provide livelihoods to communities, and adapt to climate change, two UN agencies said in a report published on Saturday.

These systems are critical to maintaining the quality, nutritional value and safety of food, especially as an estimated 14 per cent of all food produced for human consumption is lost before it even reaches consumers.

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The increased investment is also required if the world is to meet the challenge of feeding an additional two billion people by mid-century.

Multiple crises, massive difference

The report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was launched at the COP27 climate change conference underway in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

“At a time when the international community must act to address the climate and food crises, sustainable food cold chains can make a massive difference,” said Inger Andersen, the UNEP Executive Director.

“They allow us to reduce food loss, improve food security, slow greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, reduce poverty and build resilience – all in one fell swoop.”

Hunger on the rise

Food waste is happening as the number of hungry people worldwide rose to 828 million in 2021, or 46 million more than in the previous year.

In 2020, nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet, up 112 million from 2019, as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic drove up inflation.  This year, the war in Ukraine has threatened global food security.

The report argues that developing countries could save a staggering 144 million tonnes of food annually if they reached the same level of food cold chain infrastructure as richer nations.

Better life for all

Sustainable food cold chains can also make an important difference in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to FAO Director-General Dongyu Qu.

“All stakeholders can help implement the findings of this report, to transform agrifood systems to be more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable – for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all, leaving no one behind,” he said.

Impacts on climate change

The food cold chain has serious implications for climate change and the environment, the report revealed.

Emissions from food loss and waste due to lack of refrigeration totalled around one gigatonne of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017, or roughly two percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Food loss also increases the unnecessary conversion of land for agricultural purposes, as well as use of water, fossil fuels and energy.

Reducing food loss and waste could make a positive impact on climate change, the report said, but only if new infrastructure is designed that uses gases with low global warming potential.

Results and recommendations

Sustainable food cold chains are already making a difference in countries such as India, where a pilot project reduced kiwi fruit losses of by 76 per cent while reducing emissions through expansion of the use of refrigerated transport.

The report contains recommendations that include quantifying the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in existing food cold chains, establishing benchmarks, and identifying opportunities for reductions.

Authorities also can implement and enforce ambitious minimum efficiency standards, as well as monitoring and enforcement, to prevent illegal imports of inefficient food cold chain equipment and refrigerants.

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