Food Loss and Waste in Fish Value Chains
©FAO/OmarRiego Penarubia

Climate Change and Fish Loss and Waste

By Meghan Grever

Discussion around food loss and waste tends to focus on how much good food never even makes it to the plate – and for good reason. Roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption, including fisheries and aquaculture products, is lost or wasted globally, meaning that, per year, about 1.3 billion tons of good food never gets eaten. In developed countries alone, retailers, food service providers and consumers throw out about 300 million tons of good food a year. That’s more food wasted than Sub-Saharan Africa produces in a year, and it could feed the world’s estimated 900 million hungry people.  

While the amount of lost and wasted food is staggering, the environmental impact of this waste is often overlooked. Food, including fish that have gone to waste, when left to rot or disposed of in a landfill, is a major source of greenhouse gases (GHG). In fact, this waste contributes to an estimated 8 percent of all man-made GHG emissions and comes mostly in the form of methane. Methane (CH4) is at least 25 more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and is a large contributor to climate change.  

In fisheries and aquaculture, it is estimated that 35 percent of the global harvest is either lost or wasted every year. This wastage also means that huge amounts of resources used in food production are used in vain, resulting in a net loss of time, capital, and materials, with many of these activities contributing additional GHG emissions. These emissions can be due to everything from feed production to boat fuel, processing practices to packaging, transportation to refrigeration, and preparation to disposal of excess food. Fuel consumption during fishing makes up the single largest contributor to GHG emissions of fishery-derived products, while feed production leads in the emissions produced during aquaculture. Post-harvest and processing activities, whether on board fishing vessels or ashore, are also heavily dependent on fuel (or energy). Efforts to continue to keep up with demand for food – a large portion of which is wasted – puts pressure on already stressed resources, such as water and land, which already may be facing challenges due to climate change. 

On a global average, the per capita food wastage footprint on climate in high income countries is more than double that of low-income countries, due to wasteful food distribution and consumption patterns in high income countries. If the United Kingdom alone kept organic food out of landfills, for example, it would not only save USB 1.1 billion a year on landfill cost, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.4 million tons. Conversely, the causes of food loss and waste in low income countries are mainly connected to financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems.  

Climate change in turn can make food and fish production more problematic, due to the resulting droughts, floods, and other environmental changes. Changes in weather patterns have implications for fish landing times as well as traditional drying times. Warming temperatures and acidification can lead to both ecosystem changes and variations in species, overall affecting catch composition and distribution of marine fish stocks. This warming can also result in more invasive species and pests, toxic algal blooms, and ciguatera poisoning, overall having a significant impact on food quality and food safety. 

Fish and fish products are the main source of animal protein for billions of people worldwide and the livelihoods of more than 10 percent of the global population depend on capture fishing and aquaculture. While the output of fisheries and aquaculture produces lower GHG emissions for the equivalent nutrition than most agricultural food systems, properly managed fisheries combined with aquaculture practices which foster the sustainable use of resources while preserving aquatic biodiversity are needed to ensure the future of the sector. The role of new climate smart technologies to minimize food loss and waste at all stages of the fish value chain will allow for more efficient use of resources, and move towards more complete utilization of fish, thereby reducing the need to extract further resources. This includes the transformation into valuable and nutritious goods of that part of the harvest that would otherwise be wasted. Robust fisheries management, more efficient transport and greater waste reclamation must all play a part in reducing post-harvest losses and limiting the environmental effects of the sector.  

Targeted interventions must recognize that most food systems both affect the environment and are, in turn, affected by environmental factors. Transformative adaptation is urgently needed, not only by fishers and aquaculture producers, but by institutions and policy makers. Fisheries management must respond to climate change by promoting a holistic, and ecosystem approach to drive overall efficiency and sustainability. The value chain itself must be diversified by adding value to new or undervalued resources. Together, these interventions are needed not only to address the rising challenges of climate change but improve both the effectiveness of fish product production and reduce the loss and waste of food that contribute to it. 

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