Food waste has largely been left off the table in the upcoming COP26 agenda, but given it generates almost 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions each year, it’s time the Government accelerated action towards a more climate-friendly food system, argues Miranda Mirosa 

This is the second in a three-part series on COP26 from the University of Otago.
*Part one: What our climate policy is overlooking
*Part three: COP26: What business needs to know

Very shortly, New Zealand’s Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw, and a small delegation will join forces with 197 other countries, plus the EU, at COP26 in Glasgow to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Summit participants will negotiate measures to help keep the planet’s temperature under control – limiting its increase to 1.5 degrees. Key priority topics for discussion include clean energy generation and transport, but what is notably absent from these discussions is any real focus on food.

Given that the global food system currently accounts for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, it is disappointing there will not be more integration with the climate agenda. It appears there will be little cooperation between COP26 and the commitments made at the recent UN Food Systems Summit.


There will be small snippets of food-related action over the summit period. The Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration will be presented, for example, which brings together subnational governments to pledge to accelerate the development of integrated food policies as a key tool to tackle the climate and nature emergencies.

And there is the ongoing Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, a joint initiative uniting participants to significantly increase and accelerate investment in, and/or other support for, climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation over the next five years. But otherwise, there is not much indication that that food systems transformation will be meaningfully linked to the climate fight at this event.

However, because the way we produce and consume food impacts climate change, and changes in the climate will impact our food system, it is vital that a stronger link between food and climate is made.

Nowhere perhaps, is this link more critical than here in New Zealand, where around half of our gross emissions come from agriculture – mainly from the dairy sector followed by sheep and beef cattle.

The Climate Change Response Act sets out our target to reduce biogenic methane by 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2030, and by 24-47 percent below 2017 levels by 2050.

Work towards achieving this is underway. The Government is basing this on the Ministry for Primary Industries’ roadmap, Fit for a better world – accelerating our economic potential. Significant funding has been made available for agricultural climate change research for novel solutions like methane and nitrous oxide inhibitors and integrated farm planning to make it easier for farmers and growers to meet their greenhouse gas reporting requirements.

The Government is working through He Waka Eke Noa, the primary sector climate action partnership, to develop solutions to measure and price agricultural emissions. Much more must be done to reduce agricultural emissions if we are to achieve the targets.

A key area of food system transformation is reducing food loss and waste. Globally, approximately a third of food produced for human consumption is not consumed.

The environmental impact of this wasted food is considerable as it generates 8-10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, so reducing food waste is largely considered one of the greatest solutions to tackling climate change.

In light of this and other related social and economic impacts, food waste reduction is now a high priority on global, national, and business agendas.

In New Zealand, we have a coalition of stakeholders, NZ Champions 12.3, advocating for accelerating progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3 – halving food waste by 2030. They recommend a three-step approach for reducing food loss and waste for governments and companies: target, measure and act, and have set a roadmap for this.

However, despite the Government releasing its cabinet paper in 2020 and committing to a food waste definition, targets, and measuring a baseline, things have moved too slowly, and we’re yet to see any real progress on the Government’s food waste work programme.

We need action on many fronts, including improved business and consumer food waste literacy to prevent it from occurring in the first place, better separation and collection systems for when it does happen, and increased diversion from landfill into upcycled food products, composting, and anaerobic digestion to improve circularity in the system.

From a climate perspective, the greatest attention should be given to the foods responsible for the highest emissions, such as dairy and meat.

Transitioning to a more climate-friendly food system will require transformational changes, and everybody has a role to play. We need our policymakers and business leaders to ensure that food is at the heart of the global response to the climate emergency by ensuring it is a priority topic at events like COP26.

And we also need everyday New Zealanders to engage. Right now, the Government is asking for feedback on the Emissions Reduction Plan – the 15-year roadmap of how we intend to reduce our emissions, including from the agricultural and waste sectors, here in Aotearoa.

Getting this plan right is critical as its outcomes will have real implications on our daily lives in the future, so feeding into this process now is a great way to get involved.

Or if making a policy submission isn’t your cup of tea, how about supporting the climate cause directly through your food choices. Try prioritising low-emission food options and ensuring that the food is eaten, not wasted.

Associate Professor Miranda Mirosa is a Consumer Food Scientist in the University of Otago' Department of Food Science.

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