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Putting Food Waste on the Climate Action Table in the US and China

Date & Time

Jan. 16, 2024
8:00pm – 9:15pm ET


Online Only


At long last food was on the climate negotiation table at the COP28. Lauded as one of the most positive outcomes of the COP, 159 countries signed the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action committing to integrate agriculture and food systems into their national climate plans. 

Agrifood systems generate 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This declaration prioritizes climate action, aiming to mitigate these emissions and aid food systems in climate change adaptation. One notable low-hanging fruit is reducing the substantial methane emissions from food loss and waste. 

China and the United States, both global leaders in food waste, have a key role to play in this area. In the US, where 38% of all food goes unsold or uneaten, this food waste generates 6% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. China faces similar food waste challenges.  

At this meeting, four panelists will speak about top-down and ground-up actions to reduce food waste in US and China. Chuanbin Zhou (Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science) will kick off the panel with an overview of the scale of food waste and its climate footprint in China. He will also cover top-down policies and urban innovations to rein in food waste. Shiyang Li (Rare China Center for Behavior) will share stories of an innovative behavioral-centered approach that forms a key part of an EU-funded initiative to reduce food waste in micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) restaurants across China.  

Pete Pearson (WWF-US) and Dana Gunders (ReFED) will discuss the newly launched US Food Waste Pact, a national voluntary agreement enabling pre-competitive food company collaboration and data-driven action to reduce food waste. Pete and Dana will share stories of corporate and community actions under the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, the model for this national pact. 

Speaker Highlights 




Dana Gunders 

At the biggest level, we’re looking ahead to a future in 2050 that we will need about 50% more food than we had in 2010 due to growing populations and dietary preferences.

Around the world, about 1/3 of all food is never eaten – that's worth 1 trillion dollars worth, and it represents 8-10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Here in the US, we estimate about 38% of the food supply goes uneaten, worth $473B, and this is happening all while there’s significant food insecurity within the US population. That uneaten food represents about 6% of US GHG emissions, equivalent to about 83 million cars.

It’s not always obvious why this is a climate problem or really can be a climate solution. There are three main reasons. The first is that when food goes to landfill, it emits methane. It’s estimated that about 59% of methane emissions from landfills are coming from food in those landfills, and landfills are the third largest source of methane in the US. The second is that it takes a huge amount of resources to grow, harvest, cool, transport, cook, store, food and get it to our tables. When we don’t eat that food, all of that goes to waste as does the footprint of that food. The third is that even today, one of the biggest pressures on land use conversion is to convert it to agriculture.

Pete Pearson

One of the interventions I loved was when we worked with a group called Bob's Red Mill. They're a flower processing company on the West Coast, and what they did is they turned the mirror back on the organization.  They saw that there's a high likelihood that the people that know most about how to reduce food waste within the operation are the employees of the organization. They're the ones that see this every day. And so when they turn the mirror on the organization, and they started to involve their employees, and they started asking employees for what solutions they see, and what observations do they have, they actually gamified it, they turned it into a game as to who had the best ideas and, and who could find these food waste reduction, these waste reduction opportunities. Within just a couple months, they saw a 60 and upwards of 70% reduction of flour waste on some of the operations and for some of the processes, 70%.

Just by heightening awareness within their employees and elevating the issue helps us get to a real important point: Waste is something that most of us just don't see. We don't see it, because we're so conditioned in our ways that we don't see what's right in front of us sometimes. And so I think the Bob's Red Mill example was a great one, because the employees and the people in the operations had all the answers. They just needed to have that elevation of awareness.

When you have a database and you have a really smart way of thinking about information system and manage data that is really key. It should be a fundamental investment for any governments and regions that want to tackle the [food waste] issue.

Chuanbin Zhou

We define food waste into three main categories: household food waste, restaurant food waste, and market food waste. Three different types of food waste all have different policies. In Beijing, about 40% food waste was digested, 15% was composted, and another 40% was sent to incineration or landfill. In 2010, because of food security problems in China, we have completed restaurant food waste treatment pilots in 100 cities. In 2017, there are 46 cities joined pilot of MSW source separation. In 2021, the Chinese government passed the anti-food waste law and it’s really important. 

There is an increasing amount of food waste to be treated in China. High value recycling of food waste technologies were required. Long-term financial mechanisms for food waste collection and treatment facilities are required to be established.  The third opportunity is cooperation between China and US, lots of topics we can discuss and communicate together, like community composting and urban agriculture. 

Shiyang Li

Restaurants mostly manage things using money. They think money is the most powerful tool they can use, either penalize or give fines. But sometimes they find even this doesn’t work – restaurant staff nowadays in China just leave if they are not happy.

With our approach, we try to help restaurant owners understand if you really want people to change behaviors, you need to tackle their emotions, help them understand why they are doing it, and reduce the barriers of their work.  Using our tools, restaurant staff get really excited about the issue. Before that, food waste was not a top priority for restaurant staff. After using the tool, restaurant staff are not only creative in reducing food waste, but taking other actions like saving energy and using water more efficiently. This approach helps restaurants improve business operation and regular management.  


shiyang headshot

Shiyang Li

General Manager, Rare China Center for Behavior

Chuanbin Zhou

Research Professor, State Key Lab for Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences
pete pearson headshot

Pete Pearson

Senior Director, Food Loss and Waste, WWF
dana gunders headshot

Dana Gunders

External Director, ReFED, Inc. 

Hosted By

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge US-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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