Vox Repeats False Claim About Food Waste and Global Warming

On April 5, 2018, Vox.com published a video on its Twitter channel about food waste. That video includes a claim that “If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” The video goes on to conclude that reducing food waste, therefore, is “one of the easiest ways to address climate change.”

This is false.

As Politifact noted in a 2017 debunking of this claim, this originated in a poorly thought out February 5, 2017 tweet from the World Food Program. The WFP, to its credit, quickly deleted the tweet after conceding that it was a lousy comparison.

World Food Program senior spokesman Steve Taravella told us they relied on a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. That article included a chart that said, “If food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.” FAO researchers estimated that a third of all food never makes it to the kitchen table and calculated the emissions that went in to growing and transporting those wasted tons.

The problem is, agriculture is an activity, not a place. It makes sense to compare its emissions to other activities, and no sense to rank it against countries.

“It’s comparing apples to oranges,” researcher Brian Lipinski at the World Resources Institute told us. “The number for food loss and waste is comprised of numbers from individual countries, and so the data isn’t mutually exclusive. So while the comparison to countries helps to establish the scale, flat-out labeling food loss and waste as the world’s third largest emitter is missing necessary context.”

Ethiopia Still Requires Food Aid, But Situation Is Improving

Its amazing what peace can actually do. In Ethiopia, crop production in 2004 was 24 percent higher than in the 2003, and 21 percent higher than the average of the previous five years according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program.

Ethiopia is not yet food self-sufficient, however, but it is slowly edging to that point. In 2004, for example, Ethiopia required 965,000 tons of food to help prevent hunger among 7 million people who lacked enough food. This year it will only require about 387,500 tons of food to aid 2.2 million people who are at risk of not having enough food.

In part, that food aid is needed due to drought in the eastern and southern parts of the country. But in the northern and western country — with Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea over for the moment — farmers were able to concentrate on improving yields with better seeds and fertilizer.


Ethiopia’s crop production up 24%. The BBC, February 2, 2005.

Locust Swarms Diminished, But Effects Remain for West Africa

2004 saw the worst locust swarms in West Africa in 15 years. Toward the end of the year, the swarms began to become less ever as internationals efforts to control began to have their effect, but in their wake the locusts left problems that many West African nations will have to deal with for years to come.

Mauritania was the worst hit by the 2004 locust plague, with much of the country’s crops for the year lost to the insects and lower-than-expected rainfall. The World Food Program estimated earlier this year that 60 percent of Mauritanians will not have enough to eat without emergency aid due to the locust swarms. It is trying to raise $31 million to fund food aid and other projects in Mauritania in 2005 and 2006.

World Food Program director for Mauritania, Sory Ouane, told The BBC,

Entire harvests where people have invested their money, time and toil for so long, are simply gone. We must act now. The right assistance now for the people of Mauritania will go a long way — not only to save lives today but also to help people avoid falling into a cycle of food crises that could last for years to come.

Coming up with aid might prove difficult. The WFP reported that almost all aid to Africa disappeared as donor nations focused their aid attention on the nations ravaged by December’s tsunami.


Appeal for locust-hit Mauritania. The BBC, January 17, 2005.

Living With Locusts – The Bitter Irony Of Mauritania’s Food Crisis. Press Release, World Food Program, March 7, 2005.

Crops Cold Comfort For Hungry Refugees. Reuters, February 3, 2005.

Africa Fights Locust Plagues. Brian Handwerk, National Geographic Channel, January 7, 2005.

WFP to Wean China Off Food Aid — Another Lester Brown Prophecy of Doom Bites the Dust

After a five day visit to China, World Food Program executive director James Morris announced that his organization would no longer provide food aid to China. Noting China’s phenomenal economic progress over the past 25 years, Morris said that China no longer faces the sort of food insecurity problems that the WFP must, of necessity, focus its resources on.

Morris told the BBC,

Our job is to feed the hungriest, poorest people, wherever they are in the world. We are very focused on those countries that would be the least developed, that would have the greatest food security problem, and the least per capita income. China is no longer one of those countries.

Morris went on to add that, “China now has this extraordinary experience of how to move a large number of people out of hunger and poverty.”

Just don’t tell Lester Brown.

Back in 1995, Lester Brown wrote one in a long line of prophetic books about overpopulation, “Who Will Feed China? A Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet.” Published as a WorldWatch book, the plot was simple — China’s rapid growth in industrialization combined with its sky high population meant that China would soon need levels of grain imports that were simply impossible. After all, according to WorldWatch

Within a span of two years (1992-1994), China has gone from being a net grain exporter of 8 million tons to being a net importer of 16 million tons. China’s overnight emergence as a leading importer of grain, second only to Japan, is driving up world grain prices, promising to raise food prices everywhere, the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research institute, said in a study released today.

Brown projected massive, unbelievable grain import demands from China. He suggested that simply to feed all of the chickens necessary to meet China’s demands for eggs by 2000 would require the equivalent in grain imports of the entire Australian production.

The reality, of course, was a bit different. China’s brief period as a net importer of grain turned out to be an anomaly. For example, other than 1994-95 and 1995-96 when it as a net importer of corn, China has been the second leading exporter of corn, behind only the United States.

Brown and others, as they always do, vastly underestimated the ability of China’s grain production capabilities.

Rather than China’s rapid industrialization and economic growth outstripping its ability to produce food, China, as Morris noted, “has built its capacity to address its own problems, it doesn’t need us any more.”

Brown made two fundamental errors of the type commonly made by prophets of doom. First, he assumed that very short trends — in this case, just over two years (!!) — represented long-term trends. Second, he assumed that the development model that Japan followed — rapid industrialization and population expansion that quickly created land shortages — would also be applicable to China, despite the obvious dissimilarities between the two (Brown might want to locate Japan and China on a map someday and compare and contrast the respective land mass of the two countries).


China ‘ no longer needs food aid’. The BBC, December 13, 2004.

UN Agency to Halt Food Aid to China. Benjamin Sand, NewsVOA.Com, December 14, 2004.

Future Directions for China’s Food Demand. Robert Wisner, AgDM Newsletter, November 2000.

Who Will Feed China:
Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet
. Press Release, WorldWatch Institute, November 3, 1995.

Food Aid to North Korea Begins to Dry Up — Should the World Give Food to States like North Korea?

worlTwo separate but closely related stories emerged within a few days of each other in January. First, the World Food Program announced that it had received so few donations to feed hungry people in North Korea that it would have to temporarily eliminate aid to more than half the 4.2 million neediest people it serves there.

Just a few days later, Amnesty International released a report claiming that North Korea had used food as a political weapon. According to Amnesty International, North Korea strictly circumscribes where humanitarian workers can visit and distribute food,

The continued restrictions on access for independent monitors, food donors, inter-governmental organizations and NGOs impede efforts to assess needs and fulfill these obligations. They appear to be a playing a significant role in the continuing food shortages. About 20 percent of North Korea’s land-mass, containing some 13 percent of its population, is not accessible to international humanitarian agencies. In 2003 NGOs complained that the government had “placed real limits on where and when NGO representatives could travel, what type of activities they could pursue, and with whom they could interact…NGO representatives quickly became frustrated as DPRK officials blocked some [of] the most common monitoring devices, including morbidity tracking, nutritional surveys, market surveys, and price surveys…”(59)

Humanitarian NGOs such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF),(60) Oxfam,(61) Action Contra La Faim (ACF), the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, Inc. (CARE),(62) the U.S. Private Voluntary Organization Consortium (PVOC) and Médicins Du Monde (MDM) have withdrawn from North Korea, citing inadequate access and their consequent inability to account for the eventual use of their aid supplies. MSF stated that restrictions on access had made it impossible to deliver aid in a “principled and effective” manner. It called on donor governments to review their aid policies towards North Korea, to exact greater accountability and to ensure that agencies were able to assess needs impartially and have direct access to the population. Several sources claim that international aid has been distributed by the North Korean authorities to those who are economically active and loyal to the state, while some of the most vulnerable groups have been neglected.

According to Amnesty International, North Korea also uses public execution to punish those who steal food or leave the country looking to escape the famine in China,

There are reports that people have executed in public for famine-related crimes such as stealing crops or livestock for food. There have also reportedly been executions of North Koreans repatriated from China who had crossed the border in search of food. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all instances as the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. As a State Party to the ICCPR the North Korean government is obliged to uphold Article 6(2) which states: “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes…”(75) Other UN safeguards stipulate this should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.”(76) The Human Rights Committee has also determined that public executions are “incompatible with human dignity”.(77)

The United States, Australia and the European Union have all agreed to send more aid to North Korea, though as the WFP notes that can take up to three months to arrive in North Korea. Those countries should follow the lead of MSF, Oxfam and others and withdraw aid from North Korea until it corrects the problems that Amnesty International outlines. Continuing to feed and clothe the North Korean dictatorship is simply prolonging the pain of the North Korean people.


Donor shortfall forces WFP to cut North Korea’s food aid. UNWire, January 20, 2004.

Group says North Korea Used Food as Political Weapon. UNWire, January 21, 2004.

Starved of Rights: Human Rights and the Food Crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Amnesty International, January 20, 2004.

World Food Program: 40 Million Africans Still on Brink of Starvation

World Food Program Executive Director James Morris appeared before the United Nations Security Council in early April urging the world not to forget the 40 million Africans who are still in danger of starvation.

Morris told the Security Council,

Commitments to humanitarian aid are political choices and this council is the most important political forum in the world. There is so much each of you can do to focus the attention and resources on the food crises now engulfing much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Morris contrasted the situation in Iraq, where the $1.3 billion will be spent over the next six months although Iraq doesn’t have anywhere near the food problems that sub-Saharan Africa suffers from (and is likely to even with the disruption caused by war).

Morris suggested there was a racial double standard at work,

As much as I don’t like it, I cannot escape the thought that we have a double standard. How is it that we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any part of the world? We simply cannot let this stand.

The key word there, though, is “routine.” Spending $1 billion or so on Iraq once in the last 30 years is something the world community will step up to the plate over. Hearing that Ethiopia or some other African nation needs massive food aid year after year will obviously erode support for aid to such countries.


40 million Africans on brink of starvation, Security Council told. Press Release, United Nations, April 7, 2003.