Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity – new FAO report

food wasteApproximately one third of food, equivalent to 1.3 Gigatonnes of edible food, is lost or wasted, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, entitled Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources. Often discussed in terms of its contribution to global food insecurity, this new report highlights food waste’s detrimental impact on the environment. For example, the resources used to produce this uneaten food equate to 1.4 billion hectares of land (around 30% of all agricultural land in the world); 250km3 of blue water (equivalent to 3 times the volume of Lake Geneva); and 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalent (making food waste the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China).

While the costs of the loss of these natural resources is yet to be put in economic terms, the direct costs of food waste borne by the producers is some $750 billion each year, equivalent to the GDP of Switzerland.

The report also details key areas where large volumes of food are being wasted with severe environmental effects, most notably, cereals in Asia; meat in western countries and Latin America; fruit in Asia, Latin America and Europe; and vegetables in Asia and Europe.

While the aim of the report is merely to highlight the scale of the problem and identify priority areas for action, the FAO has also produced a Tool Kit for Reducing the Food Wastage Footprint, which provides guidelines for reducing food waste and gives practical examples of where this is happening. In particular it points to three areas of action:

·         Reducing food waste by improving losses on farms due to poor practices and by better balancing production with demand;

·         Re-using surplus edible food within the human food chain, i.e. in other markets or as food donations, and re-using non-edible food as livestock feed;

·         Recycling through by-product recycling, anaerobic digestion, compositing, and incineration with energy recovery to allow some energy and nutrients to be recovered from food waste, rather than it rotting in a landfill and producing methane.

FAO is also a founding partner, along with the UN Environment Programme, of the Think Eat Save – Reduce your Footprint campaign, which is coordinating efforts to reduce food waste. Food can be lost at any point in the value chain from production to post-production, storage, transport, distribution and consumption. Food wasted at a later stage in the chain has a more significant impact on the environment because more resources have been invested in bringing it to the consumer. Food lost in the early stages of production, accounting for 54% of food lost, occurs more readily in developing countries while food wasted at the retail and consumption stages, 46% of food waste,  is far more likely to happen in middle and high income countries.

Food waste and loss affects food security directly and degrades the environment. As the FAO and its partners emphasise food waste is a critical issue but one for which there are solutions.

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