What is Food Loss and Waste?
Rethinking our food systems: Prioritizing the reduction of food loss and waste
We are living in a perfect storm, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, global conflicts, and the triple planetary crisis. This storm is undermining decades of global progress and threatening the Sustainable Development Goals. Conflict-related disruption to key grains has pushed food prices 34 per cent higher than last year. The pandemic increased the number of hungry people by 100 million. The triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste is causing disruption on food production and distribution across the globe.
Our food systems are part of the problem. With tons of edible produce squandered each year – never making it all the way from farm to fork – food loss and waste are examples of the larger inefficiencies of our food systems. They have negative impacts on food security and nutrition, as well as on economic development and environmental sustainability.
To fix our relationship with nature and strengthen food security, we should not simply focus on growing more food, but also on reducing food loss and waste in a sustainable manner. Prioritizing the reduction of food loss and waste is necessary for the transition to sustainable food systems that use natural resources efficiently, lessen planetary impacts, and ensure food security and nutrition.
Food Loss Waste & the Triple Planetary Crisis
The way food is produced and consumed today results in high rates of food loss and waste (FLW). An estimated 14% of food is lost in the food supply chain from post-harvest up to wholesale included (FAO 2019). Meanwhile, 17% of food is wasted at retail and consumer level (UNEP 2021).
Together, food loss and waste is responsible for an estimated 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (IPCC 2019), far higher than the emissions caused by commercial flights.
Food that is produced but never eaten also wastes resources: from water, land, and nutrients to grow it, to energy and human labor to transport it and process it, to biodiversity that is lost through the conversion of natural ecosystems into agricultural lands, which could be avoided.
All of this happens against a backdrop of rising food insecurity and malnutrition, with some 828 million people around the world suffering from hunger and almost 3.1 billion people not having access to a healthy diet.
- Food loss and waste generates 8-10% of GHG emissions (IPCC 2019)
- Greenhouse gas emissions are generated at every step of the food supply system – production, handling, transportation, storage and distribution – whether the food is consumed or not.
- GHG emissions linked to food loss and waste are affecting water supplies, accelerating desertification and drought, and worsening the unpredictability and severity of weather events.
- Rotting food waste in landfills adds to climate change by generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Food loss and waste reduction is a major strategy to cut methane emissions.
Chemicals and Pollution Action
- 71% of municipal solid waste (of which food is the single largest component in many countries) ends up in landfills that are one of three key sources of global methane emissions.
- Fertilizers used for food production have produced more than 400 ocean “dead zones”.
- 28% of the world’s arable land is used to produce food that is wasted, rather than being used to feed those most in need.
- Food that is not eaten consumes a quarter of the world’s freshwater use by agriculture, is grown on a farmland area greater than the size of China.
- When food is wasted, so are the natural resources and wildlife sacrificed to our food system.
Benefits of taking action
There is massive potential to reduce the emissions of the sector while delivering benefits across the sustainable development agenda.
Reducing food loss and consumer food waste can have a positive impact on a wide range of social, economic, and environmental benefits:
- Reducing food loss and waste can save massive amounts of money. The food produced that is wasted every year is worth well over $1 trillion.
- Reducing post-harvest food loss can increase smallholder incomes. Investing in sustainable post-harvest technologies such as sustainable cold chains, processing, and packaging, accompanied by good practices, would also help to lift people out of poverty.
- Food waste costs the average household $900 (UK), $1,352 (Canada), $1,900 (USA) and $2,170 (Australia) per year, according to recent studies by WRAP.
- Project Drawdown identifies ‘Reducing Food Waste’ as the #1 most impactful climate solution. Cutting food waste at home is one of the best ways to reduce our individual climate footprints.
- Including food loss and waste and sustainable diets in revised climate plans, policymakers can improve their mitigation and adaptation from food systems by as much as 25 per cent.
- Halving food loss and waste would help countries to realize their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement and help companies in their race to NetZero.
Addressing food loss and waste, and ensuring that what is grown gets eaten, is a powerful way to empower farmers, improve access to affordable healthy diets, make efficient use of natural resources, lower farming inputs and all associated emissions. These factors will translate into climate benefits both from an adaptation and a mitigation point of view.
The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 12 and Indicator 12.3
The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 12 seeks to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Target 12.3 calls for cutting in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level and reducing food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030.
Public and private entities as well as consumers from across the food systems, must work to cut food loss and waste to enhance the use of natural resources, mitigate climate change and support food security and proper nutrition for all. The International Food Loss and Waste: Get Involved guide offers key messages, facts and figures, and actions that stakeholders can take to help reduce food loss and waste.