Better refrigeration could save half of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted each year

Visual representation of 10-stage FSC and 4-stage FSC and the mass flows for food (F) and losses (L) that can be included in the model developed through this study. Credit: Environmental Research Letters (2024).

A new study from the University of Michigan reveals that improving refrigeration, or “cold chains,” could save nearly half of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted each year globally.

This is a significant finding, as about one-third of the food produced worldwide goes to waste, while around 800 million people suffer from hunger, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, shows that fully refrigerated food supply chains could eliminate about 620 million metric tons of food waste.

Additionally, these cold chains could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food waste by 41% globally.

The regions with the greatest potential for reducing food waste and emissions through better refrigeration are Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

In these areas, food losses could decrease by 45%, and emissions could drop by 54% with improved cold chains. Sub-Saharan Africa could see a 47% reduction in food losses and a 66% decrease in emissions with optimized refrigeration.

Interestingly, the study also suggests that developing more localized, less industrialized food supply chains could save just as much food as optimized cold chains in some cases.

Aaron Friedman-Heiman, the study’s lead author and a master’s student at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability and Ross School of Business, said, “I was surprised to find the scale of our opportunity for reducing food loss and waste globally.

Approximately half of the roughly 1.3 billion tons of food that goes to waste annually can be solved through food supply-chain optimization.”

The study also highlights that food losses produce about 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the study focuses on food losses from the post-harvest to retail stages of the supply chain, not addressing on-farm or at-home losses.

Key findings include:

  • The greatest opportunity to reduce food losses in less industrialized economies lies in the supply chain between the farm and the consumer. In contrast, in North America, Europe, and other industrialized regions, most food loss happens at the household level, so cold chain improvements would not significantly impact total food losses.
  • Meat-related food losses are particularly important. While fruits and vegetables account for a higher volume of food waste, the emissions associated with meat losses are greater due to the high greenhouse gas intensity of meat production. Optimizing refrigeration for meat could eliminate over 43% of emissions related to meat loss.

The study compared the benefits of global, technologically advanced food-supply chains with those of localized farm-to-table systems.

“Hyper-localized food systems resulted in lower food losses than optimized global, refrigerated supply chains,” Friedman-Heiman said. This highlights the value of supporting local food chains.

To conduct the study, researchers built a food-loss estimation tool to assess how improved access to cold chains could impact food loss and greenhouse gas emissions for seven food types in seven regions. They used data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and other sources to model food losses at each stage of the supply chain.

The study estimates that poor cold-chain infrastructure could be responsible for up to 620 million metric tons of global food loss annually, leading to emissions of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents—equivalent to 28% of U.S. annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers believe their adaptable, easy-to-use tool will benefit anyone involved in the food supply chain, including farmers, grocery retailers, government officials, and non-governmental organizations.

“Although cold chain infrastructure is rapidly increasing worldwide, an optimized cold chain will likely develop at different rates and in different ways across the globe,” said Shelie Miller, the study’s co-author and a professor at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability and the College of Engineering.

“Investment decisions will need to be prioritized to maximize the desired outcomes and impacts.”

For example, NGOs focused on ending hunger might prioritize cold-chain upgrades that provide the greatest overall food-loss reductions, while those focused on climate action might target reducing meat losses specifically.

In conclusion, the study shows that better refrigeration can save significant amounts of food and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping to address both hunger and climate change.