We’ve known for a while that not all of the world’s food is eaten – but how much of it is wasted wasn’t entirely clear, until the UN completed some new research in 2021.
The Food Waste Index Report 2021, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partner organization WRAP, detailed that in 2019 approximately 931 million tonnes of food – 17% of the total amount available to consumers – went to waste.
This would be enough to fill 23 million, fully loaded 40-tonne trucks, which bumper-to-bumper would circle the world seven times.
The report identified 152 datapoints concerning food waste over 54 countries and found that nearly every country that measured their food waste had substantial food waste – household food waste sat at 11%, on average, which was higher than food services at 5% and retail outlets at 2%. Income level wasn’t a factor.
On a global-per-capita level, this equates to 121 kilograms of consumer-level food wasted each year, with households accounting for 74kg of it.
Wasting food has a substantial impact on the environment, societies and economies. For example, at a critical time for climate action, 8–10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food waste.
“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,” says UNEP executive director Inger Andersen.
Nearly 700 million people were affected by hunger in 2019, a number expected to rise with COVID-19. Worldwide, three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. Reducing food waste at home seems the least we can do.
“For a long time, it was assumed that food waste in the home was a significant problem only in developed countries,” says Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP.
“With the publication of the Food Waste Index report, we see that things are not so clear cut.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12 Target 3 (“SDG 12.3”) aims to halve the amount of food waste produced at both retail and household levels, in order to lower the environmental and economic impact of waste.
“With only nine years to go, we will not achieve SDG 12.3 if we do not significantly increase investment in tackling food waste in the home globally,” says Gover. “This must be a priority for governments, international organisations, businesses and philanthropic foundations.”
One incredible way that ordinary people are combating the challenge of food waste is detailed in the 2020 SCINEMA International Science Film Festival entry Robin Food, about a non-profit organisation of the same name dedicated to raising awareness around food waste.
Robin Food rescues food that would otherwise go to waste – from farms, shops, and markets – and cooks it into delicious vegan meals in their pay-as-you-feel restaurant.
Providing healthy food, while making sustainability information accessible, they seek to reduce the amount of food waste generated in Israel and simultaneously improve food access for populations that suffer from food insecurity.
You can watch the film here.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.