The waste of a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year is not only causing major economic losses but also wreaking significant harm on the natural resources that humanity relies upon to feed itself, says a new FAO report.
‘Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources’ is the first study to analyse the impacts of global food wastage from an environmental perspective, looking specifically at its consequences for the climate, water and land use, and biodiversity.
The study report was launched at a press conference at FAO headquarters in Rome on Wednesday, according to a message received here.
According to the study’s key findings, each year food that is produced but not eaten guzzles up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River and is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas to the planet’s atmosphere.
And beyond its environmental impacts, the direct economic consequences to producers of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run to the tune of US$ 750 billion annually, FAO report estimates.
“All of us – farmers and fishers; food processors and supermarkets; local and national governments; individual consumers — must make changes at every link of the human food chain to prevent food wastage from happening in the first place, and reuse or recycle it when we can’t,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.
“We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost because of inappropriate practices, when 870 million people go hungry every day,” he added.
As a companion to its new study, FAO has also published a comprehensive “tool-kit” that contains recommendations on how food loss and waste can be reduced at every stage of the food chain.
The tool-kit profiles a number of projects around the world that show how national and local governments, farmers, businesses, and individual consumers can take steps to tackle the problem.
Where wastage happens
Fifty-four percent of the world’s food wastage occurs ‘upstream’ during production, post-harvest handling and storage, according to FAO’s study. Forty-six percent of it happens ‘downstream’ at the processing, distribution and consumption stages.
As a general trend, developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural production, while food waste at the retail and consumer level tends to be higher in middle- and high-income regions — where it accounts for 31-39 percent of total wastage — than in low-income regions (4-16 percent).
The later a food product is lost along the chain, the greater the environmental consequences, FAO report notes, since the environmental costs incurred during processing, transport, storage and cooking must be added to the initial production costs.
Wastage of cereals in Asia is a significant problem, with major impacts on carbon emissions and water and land use. Rice profile is particularly noticeable, given its high methane emissions combined with a large level of wastage.
While meat wastage volumes in all world regions is comparatively low, the meat sector generates a substantial impact on the environment in terms of land occupation and carbon footprint, especially in high-income countries and Latin America, which in combination account for 80 percent of all meat wastage. Excluding Latin America, high-income regions are responsible for about 67 percent of all meat wastage.
Fruit wastage contributes significantly to water waste in Asia, Latin America, and Europe, mainly as a result of extremely high wastage levels.
Similarly, large volumes of vegetable wastage in industrialised Asia, Europe, and South and South East Asia translates into a large carbon footprint for that sector.
Causes of food wastage
A combination of consumer behavior and lack of communication in the supply chain underlies the higher levels of food waste in affluent societies, according to FAO. Consumers fail to plan their shopping, over-purchase, or over-reaction to “best-before-dates,” while quality and aesthetic standards lead retailers to reject large amounts of perfectly edible food.
In developing countries, significant post-harvest losses in the early part of the supply chain are a key problem, occurring as a result of financial and structural limitations in harvesting techniques and storage and transport infrastructure, combined with climatic conditions favorable to food spoilage.