A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that people globally waste 1 billion tons of food a year.
Although food waste was previously thought to be an issue that primarily affects the world’s richest countries, the UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report, which was released on Thursday, found that the levels of waste are similar across the board — although there isn’t yet enough data on some of the world’s poorest countries.
Overall between the food that is wasted in homes, restaurants, and shops, 17% of all food produced is thrown away. It’s estimated that the food waste coming from households alone amounts to 74kg per person each year.
When the UNEP also included food that’s lost in production on farms and in the supply chain, it found that in total a third of the world’s food is never eaten.
The report was produced to support global efforts to meet the United Nations’ Global Goal 12 for responsible consumption and production, by halving all food waste by 2030. Meanwhile, its Global Goal 2 is working to end hunger around the world.
The damage that food waste has on the world is two-fold: it creates a barrier to ending global hunger, and it has a detrimental effect on the environment.
The UNEP estimated that 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed. To put this into perspective, if food waste was a country, it would have the third highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world after only the US and China.
Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, explained that everyone, including individual citizens, needs to play their part in order to effectively tackle this problem.
“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,” she said. “Businesses, governments, and citizens around the world have to do their part.”
Being one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, cutting food waste is one of the easiest ways to reduce each person’s impact on the environment. The researchers said nobody bought food with the intention of throwing it away, however small amounts of food that are tossed every day can amount to something bigger. The key to reducing this waste is raising awareness.
Marcus Gover, the head of Wrap, an NGO based in the UK that helped write the report, said: “We are so used to wasting food that we’ve forgotten its value, and the cost that feeding our growing global population has on the natural world. Like it or not, we in our homes are the most significant part of the problem.”
UNEP representative Clementine O’Connor added: “Even if some of that waste can’t be consumed by humans, there are environmentally preferable ways in which it can be managed, [for example] by diverting it to animal feed or composting… What we want to drive home is we need to get food waste out of landfills.”
O’Connor also highlighted that the UK — which is set to host the COP26 Climate Summit later this year — has taken a leading role in food waste reduction and is one of very few countries that has achieved a great reduction. According to Wrap, edible household food waste was cut by almost a third in the UK between 2007 and 2018.
UNEP is planning to launch regional working groups to help countries’ capacities to measure and record food waste in time for the report next year. It will also support these countries as they develop national baselines to track progress towards the 2030 goal, and create strategies to prevent food waste.
The UNEP’s Martina Otto said: “If you don’t take action on food waste, it’s a triple loss. It’s not only the food that we’re chucking out, but also all the natural and financial resources that went into producing that food. So let’s make it a triple win.”