In reading an article in the New Yorker entitled Africa's Cold Rush and the Promise of Refrigeration, there were the following snippets:

if global food waste were a country its greenhouse-gas emissions would be the third largest in the world, right behind China and the US.

Can someone specify the exact way that food waste generates so many greenhouse-gas emissions?

if every country were to have a cold chain similar to the ones the developed world relies on, these emissions would increase fivefold. Seen from that perspective, helping Rwanda develop an energy-efficient cold chain looks less like altruistic development aid and more like enlightened self-interest.

Clearly, developed countries have technologies that use a lot of energy, and energy is currently usually produced with greenhouse-gas emissions. What does the author mean by "enlightened self-interest" in the snippet above? It is in the self-interest of the population of a poor underdeveloped country like Rwanda to have a food refrigeration chain as in a developed country. It seems the author is inferring that such developed countries providing aid to accomplish such a chain is less altruism and more self-interest. This doesn't seem to make sense though.

  • 2
    Welcome to Sustainable Living! I think the author means that it's in everyone's best interest to make sure that also upcoming countries increase their usage of renewable energy. If lots of people in developing countries gain access to refrigeration powered by electricity from the current energy mix (world-wide 75% fossil-fuel based), then CO2 emissions will increase dramatically. However, this isn't limited to refrigerators. It goes for any technology that uses electricity (for example washing machines).
    – THelper
    Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 6:58

3 Answers 3


tl;dr: food that isn't eaten still takes energy and land to produce, resulting in GHG emissions.

The article references The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as the source of the food waste estimate. I believe they are referring to World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future, which includes this figure (page 54):

If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world

The footnote explains how this is calculated (emphasis added):

Figures reflect all six anthropogenic GHG emissions, including those from land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF).

These six emissions factors are detailed earlier in the report, on page 9:

Agriculture accounts for about one-quarter of global GHG emissions (~2010)

From the figure, you can see that 24% (11.8 Gt) of CO2e emissions are from agriculture and LULUCF -- basically, food production. (Note that this does include biofuels, which accounts for about 3% of total energy production by food calories, per Figure 2-2 on page 18. Also, getting from the total GHG emissions figure of 11.8 Gt, to the figure for wastage, 4.4, is a complicated calculation that depends on the type of food wasted, and where in the supply chain it's wasted -- for more details see the FAO report, Food wastage footprint & Climate Change.)

So contrary to what other answers have suggested, GHG emissions from food waste is not due to decomposition of the wasted food: It's a measure of the energy used to produce food that wasn't ultimately consumed. The embodied carbon of the food itself will make it's way to the atmosphere whether it is eaten, or left to decompose -- but the GHG emissions from the agricultural sector and land-use change would not have occurred if that food hadn't been produced.


Bacteria metabolize it release methane and other products. Similar to organics decomposing in a swamp or soil.


Organic means "carbon" decomposing organic material produces carbon dioxide

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