By Roberta Attanasio
The foreword of a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report starts with a poignant observation: “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste also burdens waste management systems, exacerbates food insecurity, making it a major contributor to the three planetary crises of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.”
The report (UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021) was produced by the UNEP in collaboration with the partner organization WRAP, a global NGO based in the UK. It was released on March 4, 2021, and shows that substantial amounts of food are produced but not eaten by humans, leading to considerable negative impacts—environmentally, socially and economically. In other words, substantial amounts of food are just dumped.
Estimates suggest that 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed. The report provides not only insights into the scale of food waste, but also a methodology that enables countries to measure baselines and track progress in meeting the target of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3.
SDG 12.3 aims, by 2030, to 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.
The report estimates that around 931 million metric tons of food waste was generated in 2019, 61 per cent of which came from households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail. This suggests that 17 per cent of total global food production may be wasted (11 per cent in households, 5 per cent in food service and 2 per cent in retail). It also found that previous estimates of consumer food waste significantly underestimated its scale.
However, the report emphasize that the true scale of food waste and its impacts have not been well understood until now. As such, the opportunities provided by food waste reduction have remained largely untapped and under-exploited.
Reducing food waste at retail, food service and household level can provide multi-faceted benefits for both people and the planet.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, said: “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. 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.”
Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP, said: “For a long time, it was assumed that food waste in the home was a significant problem only in developed countries. With the publication of the Food Waste Index report, we see that things are not so clear cut. With only 9 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 organizations, businesses and philanthropic foundations.”
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, reducing food waste should become a global priority.