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Owner of Cloverleigh Farm Susan Mitchell showing carrots in cold storage in Columbia, Conn.
Food Supply Chains

Interventions to reduce food loss and waste and to decarbonize supply chain activities in transport, processing and distribution.

Reducing emissions from energy use in food storage, cold chains, transport and processing


In 2018, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from energy use within food supply chains – including from industrial food processing, packaging, refrigeration and retail – were approximately 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2eq) per year. An additional 0.5 GtCO2eq per year stemmed just from food transportation. On top of these already alarming figures, food waste disposal amounted to nearly 1 GtCO2eq per year in 2018.

Some interventions for reducing emissions from food supply chains have greater potential impacts. Generally, interventions that reduce food loss and food waste in later stages of the supply chain will have a greater impact on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is because the embedded emissions of products increase over time as they move through the supply chain.

Concrete measures to implement

Several measures – including both technological innovation and behavior change – can reduce emissions associated with food supply chains. Measures to reduce emissions along supply chains include:

  • Improved storage on the farm:
    • Promote use of natural insecticides: Plant species and extracts with natural pesticide ability have been found and are already commonly used, as part of traditional practices, to protect grains from insects in several African and Asian countries. Plant-based chemicals and products are biodegradable, environment friendly and relatively safe for human health.
    • Invest in Hermetic storage (HS), also known as “sealed storage” or “airtight storage” (e.g. metal drums and silos, and hermetic bags). HS is an effective storage method for cereal, pulses, coffee and cocoa beans, as it reduces the use of chemicals and pesticides. 
  • Cold storage measures:
    • Promote lower-cost, off-grid cooling technologies (e.g. biogas- or solar-powered technologies) that offer a low-emission alternative to cold storage facilities. For example, Coolbots serve to convert window air conditioners to walk-in refrigerator cooling units and can be powered by an off-grid system using solar power. They are estimated to be about 25% more efficient than conventional cooling systems.
    • Invest in cold storage facilities with greater energy efficiency. About 15% of electricity consumed worldwide is used for refrigeration and about 1% of global GHG emissions are produced by cold chains. Energy-efficient cold storage technologies include phase change material, thermal energy storage and phase change thermal storage units.
    • Encourage behavioural and design changes that reduce energy usage in existing cold storage facilities. This includes ensuring rapid transfer of temperature-controlled food from one unit to another; taking advantage of “free” cooling (i.e. naturally lower evening temperatures); designing systems for efficiency at typical temperatures; and improving systems to minimize refrigerant leakage (improved room insulation in cold storage facilities alone could generate energy savings of 25%).
    • Phase-out use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a type of highly potent GHG often used in refrigeration. For instance, the United States is phasing out HFCs under the AIM Act. There are several known low-emissions alternatives to HFCs in refrigeration, such as natural refrigerants (e.g. ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, water and air).
    • Incentivize households to buy more energy-efficient refrigerators through subsidies and/or labelling schemes such as the labels provided by the European Union’s Ecodesign Directive.
  • Processing measures, for example:
    • Promote and support farmers to acquire drying equipment—from simple tarpaulins to shelters that protect from the rain. Most grain losses occur during storage due to improper drying, leading to mold damage.
    • Support smallholder farmers to acquire appropriate machinery (e.g. maize shellers and rice mechanical threshers) for threshing and shelling of grain crops.
    • Promote low emissions drying technologies such as solar dryers.
    • Promote use of low-emissions processing technologies (e.g. canning, irradiation and dehydrating) that extend shelf life and eliminate or reduce the need for cold storage. For more information on technologies that can help to reduce emissions associated with food supply chains, see Reducing post-harvest food loss at storage, transport, and processing levels.
  • Transportation measures:
    • Increase responsible investment in transport infrastructure (e.g. improved road and rail networks from high-production areas, and in more GHG-efficient modes of transport) by adopting territorial approaches to improve market connectivity and trade access, particularly in areas with high multidimensional poverty. For example, rail and barges are more energy-efficient per ton of cargo than air freight. Similarly, larger trucks are more emissions-efficient than smaller vehicles.
    • Use information and communications technology to design the least emissions-intensive transportation routes and storage strategies. For example, in a study of Californian farmers’ markets, the introduction of consolidation centers where farmers could transport their goods before they were brought to the market was estimated to decrease total distance travelled by 30% and reduce transportation emissions by 19% or more.
  • Cross-cutting measures:
    • Establish energy-use requirements for refrigerators and other food storage, processing and transportation technologies. For example, the European Union’s Ecodesign Directive provides design requirements for many types of technologies, including refrigeration technologies.
    • Implement technologies and practices to reduce food loss and waste. Food loss and waste is a major contributor to emissions stemming from food systems and supply chains. For detailed information on measures that can help to reduce food losses (and associated emissions) along food supply chains, see Reducing post-harvest food loss at storage, transport, and processing levels
    • Invest in trigeneration systems, a technology which offers significant reductions in GHG emissions associated with supply chain processes. Trigeneration (sometimes referred to as CCHP, CHRP or polygeneration, depending on the system) involves the integration of local combined heat and power generation (CHP) with refrigeration technologies to provide simultaneous electrical power, heating and cooling/refrigeration. This can produce significant energy and GHG reductions compared to separate production systems for electricity, heat and refrigeration. Compared to conventional HFC-based cooling systems, integrated trigeneration and CO2 systems can be at least 15% more energy-efficient and reduce carbon emissions by 44%.
    • Increase responsible investment in infrastructure, technologies, logistics, services, and supply chains, by adopting territorial approaches to improve market connectivity and trade access, particularly in areas with high multidimensional poverty.
Hind quarters transporting to butchering.

Enabling governance measures

Many of the measures to reduce emissions associated with food storage, cold chains, transport and processing might only be possible given broader governance and policy reforms. The following governance measures can serve to facilitate the measures listed above: 

  • Support smallholder farmers and small and medium businesses with upfront investment costs of infrastructure and technologies to reduce post-harvest food loss, with particular emphasis on supporting low-income areas and marginalised groups.
  • Reform food and manufacturing policies (e.g. introduce market-based measures and subsidies) to enable the design and implementation of more energy-efficient technologies for food storage, processing, and transportation, by providing incentives for investment in crucial technological Research & Development for more energy-efficient and effective cold chains. Manufacturers could be incentivized to invest in these technologies through programmes such as the UK’s Enhanced Capital Allowances Schemes or the UK’s Climate Change Levy.
  • Improve public services infrastructure (e.g. reliable internet and electricity supply) to enhance efficiency of supply chain processes and reduce overall emissions.
  • Along with making technologies available, the government agencies and organisations must ensure the equitable development of facilities to provide accessible, clear information and training about the use and maintenance of these technologies in the local language, for successful adaptation and effective use of these technologies.
  • Invest in renewable energy production and distribution to facilitate replacement of fossil fuel-powered equipment and machinery along the food supply chain. See Shifting to clean energy at the farm level.
  • Conduct research that quantifies emissions embedded in food supply chains to identify where in food supply chains emissions are arising and thereby develop targeted interventions.
  • Encourage supermarkets and other food retailers to alter their choice architecture to steer consumers away from emissions-intensive products. For more information on measures that can influence consumers to opt for more sustainable options, see Regulating advertising of unhealthy and unsustainable food.

Tools and MRV systems to monitor progress

For more information on LCA and other assessment methodologies, see Food system assessment.

Mitigation benefits

Implementation of new storage, cooling and drying technologies that are more energy efficient or operate using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels result in net reduction of GHG emissions in food systems:

  • Studies indicate that improved food storage technologies could reduce CO2 emissions associated with supply chains by two-fold.
  • The contributions of each post-production phase to the overall carbon footprint of supply chains is approximately 17% of emissions in postharvest handling and storage, 14% in processing and 15% in distribution. Consumption contributes approximately 35% of the overall carbon footprint.  

Other environmental benefits

  • Improved air quality from reduced burning of fossil fuels.

Adaptation benefits

  • The energy savings from system improvements to cold storage facilities can increase revenue, reduce expenses and shorten the payback period. These improvements also enable sellers to provide agricultural products to consumers at more competitive and affordable prices.
  • The introduction of new, lower-emissions technologies can reduce labour costs and provide jobs for skilled workers.

Other sustainable development benefits

  • SDG 1 (Zero hunger)
  • SDG 2 (No poverty)
  • SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy)
  • SDG 9 (Industry, innovation, and infrastructure)
  • SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production)
  • SDG 13 (Climate action)

Main implementation challenges and potential negative externalities and trade-offs

  • It can be expensive to design, implement and operate new supply chain technologies and infrastructure. This can be an especially significant obstacle in developing countries.
  • Biogas-powered cooling technology relies on digesters to produce the biogas, a process which requires large amounts of water (50-100 litres per day to mix the manure, equivalent to around 25,000 litres of water per year).
  • Energy efficiency gains (and corresponding emission reductions) in refrigeration could be offset by increased use of refrigeration technology due to growth of societal dependence on refrigeration. This is an example of the so-called “rebound effect.”

Measures to minimize challenges and potential negative externalities and trade-offs

  • Costs from the development, purchase and/or use of improved technologies could be offset through subsidies or support (e.g. financial and/or technical) from wealthier governments or institutions.
  • Solar-powered coolers use less water as compared to biogas-powered coolers. They were found to have the capacity to save around 1 million litres of water per year in Tanzania and around 3 million litres per year in Tunisia. However, this impact was not seen in Kenya.
  • The potential increase in overall energy usage and emissions despite efficiency gains in refrigeration and other food supply chain technologies can be avoided by encouraging consumers and/or supply chain actors to consume less overall. Further, any cost savings from efficiency gains could be taxed in order to keep costs the same.

Implementation costs

  • An analysis of domestic biogas-powered milk chillers found that in Kenya and Tanzania, adoption of the chillers requires an upfront investment of USD 1,600 per household.
    • In the same analysis, solar-powered coolers required an upfront investment of USD 40,000.
  • Initial investment costs for trigeneration systems can be relatively high but payback periods of 3-5 years can be achieved given certain conditions.

Intervention in practice

  • An FAO and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development study in Morocco assessed the potential for more energy- and emissions-efficient climate control techniques in food supply chains. The results show that improving the efficiency of the cold chain in Morocco is a “low-hanging fruit” with high impact (i.e. it has considerable emissions mitigation potential without significant trade-offs or barriers to implementation).


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