Concept photo of a long row of boxes filled with fruits and vegetables in the background, depicting a modern supermarket interior. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Stable Cascade

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately one-third of the food produced globally each year goes to waste. However, University of Michigan researchers have found that fully refrigerated supply chains – or cold chains – could almost half the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually and cut the associated greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 41%.

The study, which focuses on food loss in the post-harvest to retail stages of the supply chain and the greenhouse gasses emitted during food production, concludes that improved cold chains offer the greatest potential for reducing food losses and related emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. However, potential improvements are relatively modest in industrialized regions with highly developed cold chains, such as North America and Oceania.

In these markets, analysis shows that short, highly localized “farm-to-table” supply chains can “reduce food losses within the supply chain beyond what has already been accomplished through nearly optimal refrigeration.”

The research also considers the tradeoffs to be made between preventing food loss and waste and reducing harmful emissions. For example, while fruit and vegetable losses are higher in weight worldwide, the climate-related emissions associated with meat losses are consistently higher than those associated with any other food type. Therefore, optimized refrigeration of meat could have a significant impact on climate action, potentially eliminating more than 43% of the emissions related to meat loss.

The study states, “If the SDG for Zero Hunger is the most important consideration, cold chain interventions that provide the greatest overall food loss reductions and best nutritional outcomes may best meet that objective. Alternatively, organizations that prioritize climate action may focus on reducing meat losses specifically rather than total food losses.”

The impact of refrigeration on food losses and associated greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain by Aaron Friedman-Heimanand Shelie A Millerwas published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters.