Revolutionizing cold chains: New study reveals potential to slash global food waste and emissions by 41%

A University of Michigan study highlights the transformative impact of fully refrigerated food supply chains on global food waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

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A groundbreaking study by researchers at the University of Michigan (UMichigan) has unveiled the transformative potential of fully refrigerated food supply chains in significantly reducing global food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, highlights that almost half of global food waste—approximately 620 million metric tons—could be saved if food supply chains were fully refrigerated.

Global food waste remains a critical issue, with about a third of worldwide food production going to waste each year. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that roughly 800 million people go hungry annually. The new study emphasizes that creating “cold chains” throughout the food supply chain could address this discrepancy and mitigate the environmental impact of food waste.

The study, led by Aaron Friedman-Heiman, a master’s student at UMichigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, underscores the scale of the opportunity for reducing 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,” Friedman-Heiman stated in a press release. The researchers found that by fully refrigerating food supply chains, greenhouse gas emissions related to food waste could be reduced by 41% globally.

The study’s regional analysis revealed significant potential reductions in food loss and emissions:

  • Parts of Asia could see a 45% reduction in food loss and a 54% decrease in associated emissions under optimized refrigeration conditions.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, food loss could be reduced by 47%, while emissions could drop by 66%.

The researchers compared the benefits of “farm-to-table” food systems with those of technologically advanced and globalized food-supply chains. They discovered that in many situations, the development of less industrialized and more local food supply chains could result in food savings comparable to or even exceeding those of optimized cold chains.

“Hyper-localized food systems resulted in lower food losses than optimized global, refrigerated supply chains,” said Friedman-Heiman. “The results help quantify the value of maintaining and supporting local food chains.” This finding suggests that supporting local food production and distribution can play a crucial role in reducing food waste and emissions.

The study focused on losses that occur from the post-harvest stage to retail, rather than at-home or on-farm losses. While the research accounted for food production emissions, it did not consider emissions tied to supply-chain operations, refrigeration, or landfilled food waste. This scope highlights the critical areas where improvements in cold chain technology can make a substantial impact.

One of the study’s notable findings was the significant climate impact of food losses related to meat products. Meat accounted for over half of greenhouse gas emissions from food loss, despite its food losses by weight being less than 10% globally. The researchers discovered that optimizing meat refrigeration could lead to a 43% reduction in emissions from meat loss. This underscores the importance of addressing meat supply chains to achieve meaningful reductions in food-related emissions.

The study modeled food losses at every stage in the supply chain, highlighting where cold chains could be optimized to lower emissions and food losses. The researchers then analyzed the effects of moving to an optimized system—one with high-quality refrigeration at every stage—from the current inconsistent cold chains of variable quality around the globe.

Shelie Miller, co-author of the study and a professor at UMichigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, emphasized the importance of tailored solutions for different regions. “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,” she said. “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 tradeoffs associated with cold chain improvements by food type and region.”

The findings of the study have far-reaching implications for global sustainability. Currently, about 8% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions are from food losses, according to UMichigan. Addressing these losses through optimized cold chains could play a significant role in reducing the environmental impact of food production and distribution.

Moreover, the study highlights the importance of international cooperation and investment in cold chain infrastructure to achieve these benefits. Policymakers and stakeholders must consider the unique challenges and opportunities in different regions to effectively implement cold chain solutions.

Environmental and public health advocates have praised the study’s insights. “This research underscores the critical need for investment in cold chain infrastructure to reduce food waste and its associated emissions,” said a spokesperson for a leading environmental organization. “It also highlights the value of supporting local food systems as a complementary strategy.”

The University of Michigan study reveals the vast potential for fully refrigerated supply chains to revolutionize food distribution and significantly reduce food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As Aaron Friedman-Heiman noted, the scale of the opportunity is immense, with the potential to save nearly half of the food currently wasted globally. 

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Ruth Milka started as an intern for NationofChange in 2015. Known for her thoughtful and thorough approach, Ruth is committed to shedding light on the intersection of environmental issues and their impact on human communities. Her reporting consistently highlights the urgency of environmental challenges while emphasizing the human stories at the heart of these issues. Ruth’s work is driven by a passion for truth and a dedication to informing the public about critical global matters concerning the environment and human rights.

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