Food waste, a chronically overlooked issue, is finally getting the attention it deserves. And it was definitely high time to put the issue on the public agenda, since tackling the incredibly large amounts of food wasted and lost means benefits below the triple bottom line – and with that positive social, environmental and economic impacts.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) roughly one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption, or about 1.3 billion tonnes per year, is lost or wasted. This is equivalent to the retail cost of one trillion US-Dollar of food. Unfortunatetly this is everything but the end of an unbelievable waste of resources. Production, transport, storage and marketing of food require huge amounts of energy, water and land resources.
With yearly 3.3 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions food loss and waste can be considered the 3rd largest emitter globally, only exceeded by China and the United States. Furthermore the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that global food production accounts for 70 percent of fresh water use, 80 percent of deforestation and is the single driver of biodiversity loss. Clearly, this is a big environmental cost to pay for food from which humans derive little to no use.*
But not only the impact on the environment and with that implications for global challgenges such as climate change and natural resource scarcity are extremely alarming. Also from a social perspective the issue is more than just an ethical problem, considering more than 800 million people suffering from hunger globally. Obviously general food security is still faraway. And yet already today it would be possible to feed the by 2050 projected 10 billion people, if a more equitable distribution of food was common.
Last weekend world leads gathered in New York for the UN Summit for Sustainable Development to introduce the post-2015 development agenda and adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 goals designed to, amongst others, end poverty and hunger, boost inclusive economic growth, secure peaceful and inclusive societies, as well as tacking climate change and environmental degradation within a 15-year timeframe.
In this context, clearly, tackling food waste has a huge potential for fostering sustainable development due to its interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral and mutli-level character. This is why one particular goal relates to this issue, in fact SDG 12.3., which calls for the world to cut per capita food waste in half by 2030.
“12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
12.3 By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.”
If met, this target will not only help boosting food security, but also reduce GHG emissions, save scarce natural resources such as water and land and improve livelihoods of millions of people. For example and particularly with regards to the latter aspect, according to a World Bank study just a 1 percent reduction in post-harvest losses in Sub-Saharan Africa could lead to economic gains of 40 million US-Dollar each year – and most of the benefits would go directly to the smallholder farmers that grow the food.
Fig. 1: Food lost or wasted by region and stage in value chain (WRI (2013) based on FAO (2011) adapted by author)
So clearly the issue of food loss and waste provides probably the most striking evidence of the dysfunction of our production and consumption patterns. Loss occurs mostly at the production stages (harvesting, processing and distribution), whereas food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the value chain. In industrialized regions like Europe and North America most of the food wasted occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still good for consumption. This is in stark contrast to developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, where the lion share of food is lost at the early stages of the value chain, for example due to a lack of infrastructure (e.g. transportation and cooling systems) (see Fig. 1).
However, the good news is that food waste and loss are now increasingly on the public agenda. For instance, the USA announced plans in line with SDGs to cut food waste by half by 2030. Between 2007 and 2012, the United Kingdom reduced the amount of household food and drink waste by 21 percent. Denmark even achievend an impressive 25 percent reduction over the same time span, positioning itself well in the global race to prevent food waste. And of course there is France that since only recently forces big supermarkets to give unsold food to charities by law.
On the supranational level also the European Commission seems to be taking the issue of tackling food waste very seriously. In its 2015 work programme the Commission has withdrawn from its legislative proposal on waste targets from last year (in fact reducing food waste by at least 30 percent by 2025), just to replace it with a new, more ambitious proposal by the end of this year.
In the end, the active involvement of all relevant stakeholders in and around the food value chain (agriculture, industry, trade, households, restaurant and catering sector, policy-makers, educational establishments, social institutions, etc.) is needed in order to have a long-lasting impact and reduce unsound masses of food waste and loss . But one thing here is for sure: saving money and contributing to more ecological and social sustainability has never been easier, ever.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2011): Global Food Losses and Food Waste – Extent, Causes and Prevention. Internet: http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e.pdf
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2013): Food Waste Harms Climate, Water, Land and Biodiversity – New FAO Report. Internet: http://www.unep.org/newscentre/Default.aspx?DocumentID=2726&ArticleID=9611
United Nations General Assembley (2015): Draft Outcome Document of the United Nations Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Internet: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/69/L.85&Lang=E
World Resources Institute (2013): Reducing Food Loss and Waste. Working Paper. Internet: http://www.wri.org/sites/default/files/reducing_food_loss_and_waste.pdf
* According to UNEP, food loss and waste in particular are associated with approximately 173 billion cubic meters of water consumption per year, which represents 24 percent of all water used for agriculture. The amount of cropland used to grow this lost and wasted food is 198 million hectares per year, an area about the size of Mexico.