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Why Food Waste is a major obstacle for global sustainability

Globally, food loss and waste are responsible for 8% of the total human greenhouse gases emissions, almost the same impact as world road transport 1

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What is food waste and how bad is it?

Food waste is for sure one of the world’s most overlooked problems. Despite this, its extension is impressive. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that roughly 1/3 of the total food we produce (about 1.3 billion tonnes) never gets eaten 1 . The first impact of this loss is clearly a social one: even if just one-fourth of this loss could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.

Anyway, these big numbers hide a greater complexity of facts and factors. First of all, we need to define what is “food waste” and how it differs from “food loss”. Food waste is “decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers”. On the other hand, Food loss is the “decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers” 1 .

These definitions provided by FAO clearly show the complexity of the food waste phenomenon: we consumers are not the only link of the food waste chain. But we are definitely the biggest. Estimates show that 53% of the total food waste or loss generated in the EU come from households 2 . This is why a deep change in our consuming behaviours would play a significant role in tackling world food loss.

Who wastes the most food and where?

Obviously, waste behaviours greatly varies from country to country and especially between differently developed areas of the world. For instance, on a per-capita basis, industrialized countries waste much more food than developing countries. But here, where the food supply and transport chain is not as efficient, food loss in the first stages of production is a big issue.

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Here are some numbers: per capita food waste by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg/year, while this figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia is only 6-11 kg/year 3 . The interesting fact is that pre-consumer food loss levels are roughly the same among all countries. Anyway, in developing countries more than 40% of the food losses occur at the first stages of food process, while in industrialized countries more than 40% of the food losses occur at retail and consumer levels.

What has food waste to do with global sustainability?

Food waste is not only about food, but is greatly linked to the loss of all the resources that went into its production, as well as the secondary pollution caused by its processing and distribution. For instance, 1.4 billion hectares of land (28 percent of the world’s agricultural area) is used annually to produce food that will never be eaten 1 . This also translates in a great impact in terms of water, fertilizers and pesticides.

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Moreover, food wastage’s carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year 1 . This equates to 8% of total human GHG emissions, which is close to the impact of all the world road transportation. Avoiding food waste ensures none of these emissions were produced in vain.

Food waste and loss represents a great issue when it comes to its disposal phase, too. When an organic mass as food decomposes in the landfill, it releases impressive amounts of methane, which is estimated to be a pollutant 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What about food waste in the EU?

European Union’s concern about food waste has rapidly increased during the last years, as it committed to meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 target to halve per capita food waste level by 2030. In order to do this, all European countries need to elaborate an accurate food waste accounting method. Right now, data collection on food loss and waste is full of uncertainties, but we can still have a general overview.

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Estimates say the total EU consumer food waste averages 123 kg/capita per year 4 , while the annually total food loss and waste is estimated in 88 million tonnes. After households (53%), the processing sector contributes the most to the total amount of waste with 19%, followed by food service (12%), production (11%) and wholesale and retail (5%) 2 . The economic cost of these is waste is huge as well, as it is estimated at around 143 billion euros, two-thirds of which is due to households waste.

Our way to a zero waste world is still very steep, but not impossible. As we have seen, most of the food waste issue greatly depends on consumers daily routine, especially in industrialized countries. Therefore only by changing our behaviour towards food we will be able to cut its huge impact on the environment.

Want to find out more about your own weekly impact? Just jump to the Wasteday Meal section!

ARTICLE RESOURCES:

1. www.fao.org
2. Estimates of European food waste levels, FUSIONS (2016)
3. FAO Report (2011)
4. Lost water and nitrogen resources due to EU consumer food waste, D Vanham et al (2015)