A staggering 931 million tonnes of food - 17 percent of total food available to consumers in 2019 - went into the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants and other food services, according to new UN research conducted to support global efforts to halve food waste by 2030.
This weight roughly equals that of 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks — enough bumper-to-bumper to circle the Earth seven times.
The Food Waste Index Report 2021, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partner organisation WRAP, looks at food waste that occurs in retail outlets, restaurants and homes – counting both food and inedible parts like bones and shells.
The report presents the most comprehensive food waste data collection, analysis and modelling to date, and offers a methodology for countries to measure food waste. 152 food waste data points were identified in 54 countries.
The report finds that in nearly every country that has measured food waste, it was substantial, regardless of income level. It shows that most of this waste comes from households, which discard 11 percent of the total food available at the consumption stage of the supply chain. Food services and retail outlets waste five percent and two percent respectively.
On a global per capita-level, 121 kilograms of consumer-level food is wasted each year, with 74 kilograms of this happening in households. The report also includes regional and national per capita estimates.
Food waste has substantial environmental, social and economic impacts. For example, at a time when climate action is still lagging, eight percent and 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed, when losses before consumer level are taken into account.
“Reducing food waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions, slow the destruction of nature through land conversion and pollution, enhance the availability of food and thus reduce hunger and save money at a time of global recession,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
“If we want to get serious about tackling climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, businesses, governments and citizens around the world have to do their part to reduce food waste. The UN Food Systems Summit this year will provide an opportunity to launch bold new actions to tackle food waste globally.”
With 690 million people affected by hunger in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19, and three billion people unable to afford a healthy diet, consumers need help to reduce food waste at home.
Countries can raise climate ambition by including food waste in Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, while strengthening food security and cutting costs to households. This makes food waste prevention also a primary area for inclusion in COVID-19 recovery strategies.
“For a long time, it was assumed that food waste in the home was a significant problem only in developed countries,” said Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP. “With the publication of the Food Waste Index report, we see that things are not so clear cut.
“With only nine years to go, we will not achieve SDG 12 Target 3 if we do not significantly increase investment in tackling food waste in the home globally. This must be a priority for governments, international organisations, businesses and philanthropic foundations.”
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 12.3 aims at halving per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains. One of the two indicators for the target is the Food Waste Index.
A growing number of countries have measured food waste in recent years. The reports finds that 14 countries already have household food waste data collected in a way that is compatible with the Food Waste Index.
A further 38 countries have household food waste data where small changes in methodology, geographical coverage or sample size would allow them to create an SDG 12.3-compatible estimate. A total of 54 countries had data for at least one of the three sectors covered by the report.
The new global consumer-level food waste estimates were generated from existing data points and extrapolations based upon the estimates observed in other countries.
With 75 percent of the world’s population living in a country with a directly observed food waste estimate at the household level, confidence of the estimate in this sector is higher. With far lower direct estimates at the retail and foodservice level, confidence in estimates in these sectors is lower.
Data on the breakdown between food and inedible parts wasted is available only in a few high-income countries and shows a fifty/fifty split on average at the household level. The proportion of inedible parts is an important knowledge gap and may be higher in lower-income countries.
To build on the work of the report, UNEP will launch regional working groups to help build countries’ capabilities to measure food waste in time for the next round of SDG 12.3 reporting in late 2022, and support them to develop national baselines to track progress towards the 2030 goal and design national strategies to prevent food waste.
This week, WRAP has launched the UK’s first national Food Waste Action Week, driving home the message that wasting food feeds climate change.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).