Report: Food waste harms climate, water, land

September 13, 2013

The waste of 1.3 billion tons of food per year is not only causing major economic losses but also wreaking harm on the natural resources that humanity relies upon to feed itself, says a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

“Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources” is the first study to analyze the impacts of global food wastage from an environmental perspective, looking specifically at its consequences for the climate, water and land use, and biodiversity. Among its 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 tons of greenhouse gases 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 $750 billion annually, FAO’s 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 re-use 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.”

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% of total wastage—than in low-income regions (4–16%).

The later a food product is lost along the chain, the greater the environmental consequences, FAO’s report notes, since the environmental costs incurred during processing, transport, storage, and cooking must be added to the initial production costs.

As a companion to its study, FAO has also published a “toolkit” that contains recommendations on how food loss and waste can be reduced at every stage of the food chain. The toolkit 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.

To combat the problem, FAO’s toolkit details three general levels where action is needed:

  • High priority should be given to reducing food wastage in the first place. Beyond improving losses of crops on farms due to poor practices, doing more to better balance production with demand would mean not using natural resources to produce unneeded food in the first place.
  • In the event of a food surplus, re-use within the human food chain—finding secondary markets or donating extra food to feed vulnerable members of society—represents the best option. If the food is not fit for human consumption, the next best option is to divert it for livestock feed, conserving resources that would otherwise be used to produce commercial feedstuff.
  • Where re-use is not possible, recycling and recovery should be pursued: by-product recycling, anaerobic digestion, compositing, and incineration with energy recovery allow energy and nutrients to be recovered from food waste, representing a significant advantage over dumping it in landfills. Uneaten food that ends up rotting in landfills is a large producer of methane.

Press release

Report (pdf)

Toolkit (pdf)