What action should we be taking in response to World Environment Day 2015’s ‘Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care’ theme? We could start by reducing food waste, estimated by the FAO to be 30 percent of total global food production or 1.3 billion tonnes annually.
Some wastage is inevitable on the long journey from farm to fork. But when nearly a third of the food we produce is lost, much of it before it even reaches consumers, and when households in wealthy nations are throwing away 20 percent of the food they buy while nearly a billion people starve, we need to take a long hard look at what, where, why and how food wastage occurs – and what all of us can do to prevent it.
What are the facts on global food wastage?
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes of edible, human-grade food is wasted every year. Meanwhile, studies commissioned by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization cited in the FAO’s Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction, have estimated yearly global food loss and waste by quantity at around:
- 30 percent of cereals,
- 40 to 50 percent of root crops, fruits and vegetables;
- 20 percent of oilseeds, meat and dairy products: and
- 35 percent of fish.
But wait; there's more. The FAO’s Food Wastage Footprint, published in September 2013, found that:
- Each year, 30 percent of worldwide food production for human consumption is lost or wasted after harvest or in stores, restaurants and catering bodies.
- This represents US$750 billion worth of food every year – at producer prices; at consumer prices, it reaches a trillion USD, twice the GDP of Norway.
- The total environmental cost of food wastage is estimated at a further US$700 billion a year, and social costs such as those of pesticides’ impact on human health, conflicts over land and so on, add billions more.
Are the environmental costs really that bad?
Yes, they are. The food sector accounts for around 30 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and about 22 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions – which means every time food is wasted, you also have to count the costs of producing that food. That means the cost of increasingly scarce resources such as fertile lands, water, fertilisers, fuel and stockfeed and the costs to the environment at large over time. Not only are these costs significant, they will soon become unsustainable.
According to the FAO’s Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources:
- Food wastage's carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year.
- The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km3) is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia's Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
- Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28 percent of the world's total agricultural area – is used to produce food that is lost or wasted.
- Only a low percentage of all food wastage is composted: much of it ends up in landfills, and represents a large part of municipal solid waste.
- Methane emissions from landfills represents one of the largest sources of GHG emissions from the waste sector.
- The direct economic consequences of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) are around US$750 billion annually.
If all that's not enough to get you thinking 'Maybe there's a better way', how about what's happening in our own big brown backyard?
What do we waste Down Under?
Despite Australia's clean, green food credentials, we're not exactly a clean, green country when it comes to food wastage. Here are some damning facts about the produce trashed Down Under, courtesy of Foodwise and OzHarvest:
- Every year, in Australia, eight to 10 billion dollars’ worth (or about four million tonnes) of food is lost in commercial and residential waste, and ends up as landfill.
- Aussies throw out about 20 percent of the food they buy, which equates to $1,036 worth of wasted groceries or around 345 kilograms per household, per annum.
- Of the food we throw away, around 33 percent of it is fresh produce, 27 percent is leftovers, 19 percent is packaged or long-life products, 9 percent is drinks and 7 percent is takeaway foods.
- Groups that waste the most food are young people (aged between 18 and 24), households with incomes topping $100,000 per annum, and families with kids.
- Australia produces enough food to feed approximately 60 million people, yet two million-odd Aussies a year rely on food relief.
- Our nation’s food relief agencies are under pressure, with nearly 90 percent of them reporting having insufficient food to meet demand; 60 percent saying they require at least 25 percent more food and almost three in 10 saying they’d need double the food they get to meet demand.
- Meanwhile, a million Aussie kids go to school without breakfast or to bed without dinner every night.
How is all this wastage happening?
The FAO, in its 2011 report Global Losses and Food Waste, noted that though food wastage is generated in poor and wealthy nations alike, developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural production, while in middle- and high-income regions, food waste tends to be higher at retail and consumer levels.
“The causes of food losses and waste in low-income countries are mainly connected to financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems,” stated the report’s authors.
Consumers in wealthy nations, the FAO found, waste about 222 million tonnes of edible produce per annum, almost as much as the net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). In medium/high-income countries, food wastage relates mainly to “consumer behaviour as well as to a lack of coordination between different actors in the supply chain”, the report stated.
“Farmer-buyer sales agreements may contribute to quantities of farm crops being wasted … due to quality standards, which reject food items not perfect in shape or appearance. At the consumer level, insufficient purchase planning and expiring ‘best-before-dates’ also cause large amounts of waste, in combination with the careless attitude of those consumers who can afford to waste food.”
What can we do about it?
In 2013, the US’s Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans trash up to 40 percent of their food supply annually: in this TED Talk, NRDC's executive director Peter Lehner explains how this massive wastage happens and details low-tech, proven solutions for reducing food waste and potentially, saving billions of dollars for farmers, retailers and consumers - not to mention all that fine produce (and some increasingly scarce vital resources including soil, water, fertiliser and carbon).
The FAO, in its Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources summary report, contends that the time has come to end such flagrant food wastage, if we want to avoid mass starvation and food-driven global unrest in coming decades (and possibly, the end of the world as we know it).
Here’s how they put it: “It seems clear that reduction of food wastage at global, regional and national scales would have a substantial positive effect on natural and societal resources. Food wastage reduction would not only avoid pressure on scarce natural resources but also decrease the need to raise food production by 60 percents in order to meet the 2050 population demand.”
Not worth worrying about? Dozens of forward-thinking organisations and individuals, in Australia and around the world, would beg to differ. Some are already reaping profits, carbon credits, karmic points - and millions of tonnes of would-have-been wasted food - through their efforts to stop (or stop the rest of us) trashing perfectly edible produce.
Remember, tonnes of the stuff is going to waste every second we procrastinate.