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Ripe for change: preserving our future by upgrading the food business

The global food industry is leaving $2 trillion dollars on the table. Or more specifically, in landfills and exhausted fields, in deforested areas and nutrient-clogged waterways.

This is part one of two articles focused on the astounding economic benefits of improving food production practices, including farming practices, energy use, and improved systems outlined in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming.

Project Drawdown was founded by author and environmentalist Paul Hawken in 2014 to “map, measure, and model the most substantive solutions to stop global warming, and to communicate those findings to the world.” Hawken gathered a qualified and diverse group of researchers to identify, research, and model the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. If the group’s recommendations are followed, global greenhouse gas emissions could be rolled back within thirty years.

Drawdown features some astounding economic benefits of improving food production practices in their 100 solutions to reverse climate change. Global adoption of carbon storage practices will yield a lifetime savings of more than $10 trillion, far above the $777 billion it would cost to transition.

Here at Transparent Path, we’ve identified that nearly half of these solutions are directly involved in the food chain, and these can be addressed and improved without any new inventions — with many more ingenious solutions emerging all the time.

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In Part One of this series, we’ll look at three areas of the food industry that have a direct impact on climate change: food waste, refrigeration inefficiencies, and food transport.

One-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year —approximately 1.3 billion tons— gets lost or wasted. The global costs of food wastage are around $2.6 trillion a year, including $700 billion of environmental costs & $900 billion of social costs. Food loss & waste around the world generate about 8% of human-generated annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The food sector currently accounts for around 30 percent of the world’s total energy consumption. Food transport can account for between 50 to 70 percent of the total carbon footprint of some food products, especially in the case of trucking, which is used to move nearly a third of all food worldwide.

Around 9% of the total energy used by the U.S. food system comes from distributing raw and processed food. The cold chain, which keeps our food refrigerated in transport, refrigeration, which emits 490 megatons of greenhouse gasses.

Of the 100 climate solutions in Drawdown, the third most effective is Reduced Food Waste. One-third of all food produced, about 1.3 billion tons each year, is lost or wasted along the food chain, costing the global economy an estimated $940 billion annually and producing about 8 percent of global emissions.

Food loss and waste — primarily in wealthier countries — stands in stark contrast to widespread undernourishment — mainly in poorer countries. Around one in every nine (821 million people) went hungry in 2017. If only a quarter of the food lost and wasted could be saved, it would feed 870 million people. But even in America, 15 million households (around 12 percent of the population) faced food insecurity in 2017.

In the United States, getting food from farm to fork takes up 10 percent of the total energy used in the United States, requires 50 percent of U.S. land — yet 40 percent of food in the United States today gets thrown out, the equivalent of $165 billion each year.

This uneaten food ends up rotting in American landfills as the single largest component of municipal solid waste, where it also accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions. In Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, food waste now makes up 50 to 70% of municipal solid waste.

The problem is so significant that if food loss and waste were a country, it would rank as the world’s third-largest emitter after China and the United States.

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Surprisingly, Refrigerant Management is the #1 solution on the Drawdown list for combating climate change. Keeping things cold, because of the massive energy required, puts a heavy burden on the environment. The cold chain for food — by far the biggest segment of refrigeration — accounts for an estimated 15 percent of all electricity consumed worldwide.

About 70 percent of the food in America travels through the cold chain — the specific part of the industry we focus on at Transparent Path. From cold storage on farms to refrigerated shipping to cold displays in retail outlets to in-home refrigerators, the most common types of cold chain refrigerants have a global warming potential (GWP) nearly 4,000 times that of carbon dioxide and nearly double that of air conditioners, because they don’t break down over time the way that CO2 molecules do.

Compounding this fact are the roughly 2 million refrigerated trucks worldwide today, which will grow to 10 million by 2025 — with each truck using up to 20 percent of its fuel powering refrigerator units. China, with 1.4 billion people, has 66,000 refrigerated vehicles — the equivalent of half the refrigerated vehicles of France, which has only 67 million people.

And in our growing world, the Asian middle class will grow six-fold to more than 3 billion people by 2030, two-thirds of the world total; the global urban population will grow to 6 billion by 2050. These urban, middle-class consumers will demand fresh, quality food that relies on a robust cold chain. Currently, those markets rely on highly polluting diesel-powered transport refrigeration units.

The good news is that UK-based Dearman developed a new engine for truck refrigerators that uses liquid nitrogen and produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. They are running a pilot program with Unilever, and plan to export their engines to all developed countries by the early 2020s, particularly in places still building out their cold chains, such as China, India, and Malaysia.

Here in the US, innovation is beginning to address the problem. Carrier, who have committed to “a more sustainable cold chain,” are focusing research and development on the natural refrigerant CO2, which has a GWP of 1, making it 4,000 times better than conventional refrigerants used in transport and supermarket refrigeration applications.

This is important because a more sustainable cold chain can also extend food supplies and help reduce the growing problem of food waste. In India, for example, just 4% of fresh produce travels to market through a system of refrigerated warehouses and trucks, compared to more than 90% in the UK, causing high levels of food wastage.

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In the US, we ship most of our food on trucks. So can limiting food miles, or the distance food travels before being consumed, reduce carbon emissions? Visions of highways filled with Tesla’s ‘long-haul’ electric truck, getting 200 to 300 miles on a charge, might come to mind…but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Food miles,” the measurement of the fuel used to transport it a food item during the journey from producer to consumer, are on the rise. The global food chain, with its intensive agriculture and long-distance transportation, became artificially economically cheap with non-renewable fossil fuel energy. Yet food prices in the supermarket do not reflect the externalities of these significant environmental and social costs.

In the UK, comparatively little of the food consumed comes from local producers; apples are shipped 14,000 miles from New Zealand, and green beans travel 4,000 miles from Kenya. Importing food into the UK by air uses 37 times more fuel than ground shipping. Once it gets on the ground, road freight accounts for 81% of food transport. The distances that food is being transported in the UK has increased by over 50% since 1978, partly because of centralized distribution centers like those used by large supermarket chains.

In the United States, we have similar issues. Conventionally produced, domestically-grown foods travel on average 1,500 miles from farm to plate. Conventional food distribution was responsible for 5 to 17 times more CO2 than local and regionally produced food.

However, analysis shows that personal food miles are only a small piece of the equation. In our domestic food chain, 83% of emissions result from food production, with only 5% from wholesaling and retailing food, and only 11% from transporting it post-retail. In the US alone, diesel fuel accounts for about 25% of total energy consumed by the food chain. In order to reduce impacts to climate, the very climate that grows our food, producers will have to adapt to energy-efficient transportation methods, such as electric or hydrogen fuel cell trucks.

This means that the impacts of food on climate depend not just on how far it travels but how it got to your table. The biggest reductions can be made before it ever gets onto a truck, boat, or airplane. According to Maersk, more than 75% of food waste occurs in the supply chain before the product gets to retail shelves. So through the quick identification of unsafe food, we can stop the environmental impact by preventing it from being shipped, stocked, recalled and landfilled — and at the very least, we can keep people from getting sick. Sensor and blockchain technologies like our ProofPlatform™ can make that quick identification a reality.

We want to acknowledge that eating a Plant-Based Diet is #4 on the Drawdown list. This is a subject that is very much on the minds of conscious consumers. Different food groups exhibit a large range in greenhouse-gas intensity. On average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. According to a 2016 study, emissions could be reduced by as much as 70% through adopting a vegan diet, and 63% for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs.

Because 83% of emissions result from food production, a lot of improvements can be made in agricultural practices. We’ll take a deeper look into these interlocking issues in more depth in part two of this series.

But let’s examine how improvements in local and regional trucking can help. Electric Vehicles and Trucks are #26 and #40 on the Drawdown list, respectively.

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The food industry in modernized countries uses highly-centralized systems of distribution, which means that food is being transported hundreds of miles just to be plastic-wrapped before being trucked back to be sold within a few miles of their place of origin. Using electric or other alternative-fuel vehicles will become necessary to drastically cut the carbon footprint.

In the USA, small and big farms will both have to adapt under increasing pressure to go green. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) updated federal fuel economy regulations for commercial trucks. Phase One requires semi-trucks, pickup trucks and every kind of bus and work truck to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Phase Two regulations on class 7 and 8 semis will get even steeper in 2021. According to the EPA’s announcement, by the year 2027 these trucks will have to cut emissions by an additional 24%.

Producers that ship locally, within an urban ‘stop-and-start’ environment, can help protect the environment by refitting their existing trucks with a Wrightspeed electric powertrain or purchase new hybrid trucks. The two-stage gas turbine engine can run on diesel, CNG (compressed natural gas produced from landfill and food waste), LNG (liquified natural gas), methane, biodiesel, kerosene, propane, heating oil, or any other combustible fuel like used vegetable oil. It has a range of around 30 miles, perfect for local trucking needs around container ports and food distribution centers. When an Isuzu delivery truck was retrofitted with one, it nearly quadrupled the fuel efficiency from 12 mpg to 44 mpg.

Some of the larger players have recognized the issues around delivery fleets and carbon. Frito-Lay, which has the world’s seventh-largest privately owned commercial fleet, piloted the use of 176 electric delivery trucks for regional delivery in 2010, which saved around 500,000 gallons of fuel annually and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 75%. This year, the company built a new “near zero-emission” distribution facility in Modesto, CA using a $31 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). It will feature Tesla Semi electric trucks, along with a few other electric vehicles, a charging system, some Tesla energy storage systems, and a solar array.

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Paul Polman, when he was the CEO of Unilever, noted that many agribusinesses are looking to future-proof their supply chains because they recognize that “the way we produce our food and use our land drives massive environmental destruction … and [is] causing devastating natural-capital losses.”

This is our Mars Mission at Transparent Path: to help incentivize food producers, suppliers, transporters, and consumers to support existing solutions to address food security, the growing climate crisis, and environmental collapse. Project Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, is our guideline to create these incentives by incorporating them into our ProofScore™ transparency ranking scorecard.

ProofScore is basically a FICO score for transparency, in which the more food producers and supply chain partners share (non-proprietary) origin, logistics and transport conditions data with partners and consumers, the higher their ProofScore. By including Project Drawdown categories, which also map to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we can also incentivize positive change towards the more resilient, future-proofed food supply chain required to feed a growing global population.

More information can be found at

Up next in Part 2: Paulé will show how transforming current agricultural systems can contribute more than $2 trillion in value to the world economy.

I am the Chief Storyteller for Transparent Path, a food traceability startup combining IoT sensors, digital packaging, and a blockchain data ecosystem.

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