Better Refrigeration Could Halve Global Food Waste, Study Finds

by Ella

Approximately one-third of the food produced globally each year is wasted, while around 800 million people suffer from hunger, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters highlights that fully refrigerated supply chains, or “cold chains,” could significantly reduce food waste-related greenhouse gas emissions by 41% worldwide.

Significant Reductions in Food Waste and Emissions

The study reveals that sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia have the highest potential for reducing food losses and related emissions through increased implementation of cold chains. In South and Southeast Asia, an optimized refrigeration scenario could lead to a 45% reduction in food losses and a 54% decrease in associated emissions. Sub-Saharan Africa could see a 47% reduction in food loss and a 66% decrease in emissions under similar conditions.


Interestingly, developing localized, less industrialized “farm-to-table” food supply chains can also yield food savings comparable to optimized cold chains.


Potential to Halve Global Food Waste

Aaron Friedman-Heiman, the study’s lead author and a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and Ross School of Business, expressed surprise at the potential scale for reducing global food loss and waste. “Approximately half of the roughly 1.3 billion tons of food that goes to waste annually can be solved through food supply-chain optimization,” he said.


Food losses contribute to an estimated 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. This study focuses on food losses occurring between the post-harvest and retail stages of the food supply chain, excluding on-farm or at-home losses. It accounts for greenhouse gases emitted during food production but does not include emissions from refrigeration or other supply-chain operations, nor from food waste in landfills.


Regional and Food Type-Specific Findings

The study found that the greatest opportunities for improving food losses in less industrialized economies lie in the supply chain between the farm and the consumer. In contrast, in North America, Europe, and other more industrialized regions, most food loss occurs at the household level, meaning cold chain improvements would not significantly impact total food losses in these areas.

The research reinforces previous findings on the importance of meat-related food losses. While the volume of fruit and vegetable losses is higher by weight, the climate-related emissions from meat losses are consistently greater due to the high greenhouse gas intensity of meat production.

Localized Versus Global Supply Chains

Unlike previous studies, this research compared the benefits of globalized, technologically advanced food-supply chains with those of localized “farm-to-table” food systems. “Hyper-localized food systems resulted in lower food losses than optimized global, refrigerated supply chains,” Friedman-Heiman noted. “The results help quantify the value of maintaining and supporting local food chains.”

Development of a Food-Loss Estimation Tool

For the study, researchers developed a food-loss estimation tool to assess how improved access to the cold chain could impact food loss and associated greenhouse gas emissions for seven food types across seven regions. They used data from the FAO and other sources.

By modeling food losses at each stage of the supply chain, the study identifies where cold chains can be optimized to reduce food losses and emissions. The analysis showed that transitioning from inconsistent and variable-quality cold chains to an optimized system with high-quality refrigeration at all stages could significantly cut food loss and emissions.

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

Implications for Policy and Investment

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 NGOs.

“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, a professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and the College of Engineering. “This analysis demonstrates that while increased refrigeration should lead to improvements in both food loss and greenhouse gas emissions associated with food loss, there are important trade-offs associated with cold chain improvements by food type and region.”

Investment decisions must be prioritized to maximize desired outcomes. For example, NGOs focused on ending hunger might prioritize cold-chain upgrades that offer the greatest overall food-loss reductions. Conversely, organizations prioritizing climate action might focus on reducing meat losses specifically, given that meat accounts for over 50% of food loss-related greenhouse gas emissions despite representing less than 10% of global food losses by weight. Optimized meat refrigeration could eliminate more than 43% of emissions associated with meat loss.


The study underscores that improving cold-chain infrastructure can play a crucial role in reducing global food waste and associated emissions. However, the actual greenhouse gas emissions savings will depend on the efficiency of cold-chain technologies and the carbon intensity of local electrical grids. As the world continues to grapple with food insecurity and climate change, optimizing food supply chains remains a vital strategy for addressing both issues.



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