Staggering Impacts of Food Waste on Natural Resources

The staggering impacts of food waste on natural resources has been analyzed in a recent FAO study which is the first report to look at the consequences of food waste on climate, water and land use, as well as biodiversity. The UNEP Think.Eat.Save Reduce Your Foodprint campaign has highlighted the fact that an astonishing 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted or lost globally each year – equivalent to one third of all food produced – causing major economic losses as well as harming natural resources.

Among the key findings of the report ‘Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources‘ is the fact that each year, food waste globally is the size in volume of water that annually flows into Russia’s Volga River, is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere each year, and accounts for almost 1.4 billion hectares of land (close to 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area). In addition to environmental impacts of food waste, the economic consequences are costly and amount to approximately $750 billion annually (excluding fish and seafood).


“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. 

Addressing food wastage therefore provides a golden opportunity to assist in the transition wards low carbon and resources efficient economies, while also contributing towards environmental sustainability, economic improvements and food security.

What is food wastage?

Food waste refers to intentional discards of edible items, mainly by retailers and consumers, and is due to the behavior of businesses and individuals.

Food loss on the other hand, refers to the unintended reduction in food available for human consumption, resulting from inefficiencies in supply chains: poor infrastructure and logistics or lack of technology, insufficient skills or poor management capacity. It mainly occurs during production or post-harvest processing, e.g. when crops go unharvested or produce is thrown out during processing, storage or transport.

The term food wastage refers to the two in combination.

Where does food wastage happen?

According to this FAO study on food wastage, fifty-four percent of the world’s food wastage occurs “upstream” during production, post-harvest handling and storage; while forty-six percent of it happens “downstream,” at the processing, distribution and consumption stages. 

Generally, 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 FAO report also notes that the later a food product is lost along the chain, the greater the environmental consequences, because the environmental costs incurred during processing, transport, storage and cooking must be added to the initial production costs. 

World food wastage ‘hot spots’ identified

Several world food wastage “hot-spots” are identified by the study. Wastage of cereals in Asia is a significant problem, with major impacts on carbon emissions and water and land use. Rice’s 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 industrialized Asia, Europe, and South and South East Asia translates into a large carbon footprint for that sector. 

Think Eat Save Reduce Your Foodprint_ss

Think Eat Save – Reduce Your Foodprint

What are the causes of food wastage and how can they be addressed?

The FAO report finds that a combination of consumer behavior and a lack of communication in the supply chain underlies the higher levels of food waste in affluent societies. Consumers fail to plan their shopping, over-purchase, or over-react 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. 

The FAO has developed a toolkit onReducing the Food Wastage Footprintwhich contains recommendations for action and examples from around the globe of how the food waste problem is being addressed. The FAO Food Wastage 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, a particularly harmful GHG. 

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