Seventeen percent of the food available to consumers worldwide in 2019 – almost one billion tons – was thrown away by households, retailers, institutions and the hotel industry, much more than previously suspected, the UN said on Thursday.
“The scale of the problem is just enormous,” Richard Swannell, director of development for the Waste and Resource Action Program (WRAP), a non-profit organization that co-authored a special report, told AFP.
“This is costly environmentally, socially and economically.”
If all the wasted food was packed in 40-ton container trucks parked from start to finish, they would circulate the earth seven times, he said.
Meanwhile, nearly 700 million people go hungry every night, according to UN estimates.
In addition to large volumes, the report challenges two generally held views on where food waste is concentrated, both in and within countries.
“Until now, food waste was considered a rich world problem,” said co-author Clementine O’Connor, an expert on the United Nations Environment Program on sustainable food systems.
“Our report shows that household food waste is a global problem for every country that has measured food waste.”
Approximately 931 million tonnes of food waste was generated in 2019 🍇🥬🌽
61% of this is generated at the household level, 26% from the food service and 13% at the retail level 🍜🥧
Read the latest global data in our new #FoodWasteIndex report with @WRAP_UK. https://t.co/GiSCs5T6n6
– United Nations Environment Program (@UNEP) 4 March 2021
Of the 121 kilos of food consumed each year for each person on the planet, more than half – 74 kilos – are thrown away by households.
The report covers three quarters of humanity and 54 countries – poor, middle-income and rich – with good enough data to ensure robust results, the authors say.
It is also the first to focus exclusively on what happens to food at the consumer level rather than food lost during production, storage or distribution.
The resulting food waste index is designed to help countries measure the problem within their borders, which can also help curb global warming.
Black soldier flying
“If food loss and waste were one country, it would be the third largest emission of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet,” Swannell said.
“You have to fix the food system if you are going to fix climate change, and one of the most important priorities in the food system is managing waste.”
Even when efforts to avoid food waste are scaled up, the problem of what to do with all the unused or unusable biowaste that remains remains.
The only place it should not go are landfills, where it emits the powerful greenhouse gas methane and serves no productive purpose, the authors say.
“It is absurd that we have not been better at dealing with this,” said Martina Otto, director of cities at the UN Environment Program and a contributor to the report.
There are many alternatives to burying biowaste, including donating food that is still edible, processing it for animal feed, composting and biogas production.
One technology that is already operating on an industrial scale in South Africa and elsewhere is the use of black soldier fly larvae to produce protein-rich animal feed.
“There are a number of rich countries that have acted on food waste and quite successfully,” says Otto, referring to the Netherlands and Denmark.
The UK, she noted, saw a 31 percent reduction in household food waste over 12 years, excluding inedible substances.
Questions about food waste will be addressed at the UN’s first World Summit on Food Systems, which will take place in September or October.
“This year’s summit will provide an opportunity to launch bold new measures to tackle food waste globally,” said UNEP Executive Director Inter Andersen.
One of the UN’s sustainable development goals aims to halve global food waste per capita at retail and consumer levels by 2030.