Food waste inflicts $1trn economic loss on global scale, UN report warns

Food loss and waste is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions.

This is according to UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report 2024, co-authored with the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which provides the global estimate on food waste at retail and consumer levels.

In 2022, global food waste reached 1.05 billion tonnes, including inedible parts, averaging 132 kilograms per capita and representing nearly 20% of all available food for consumers. Households accounted for 60% of this waste, followed by food services at 28% and retail at 12%.

These figures exclude an additional 13% of the world’s food lost within the supply chain, as estimated by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which occurs between harvest and market.

UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen said: “Food waste is a global tragedy. Millions will go hungry today as food is wasted across the world.

“Not only is this a major development issue, but the impacts of such unnecessary waste are causing substantial costs to the climate and nature.”

According to the UNEP, food loss and waste generates 8-10%of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – almost five times the total emissions from the aviation sector.

Additionally, it contributes to biodiversity loss, occupying an area equivalent to nearly one-third of the world’s agricultural land.

WRAP’s chief executive officer Harriet Lamb said: “With the huge cost to the environment, society and global economies caused by food waste, we need greater coordinated action across continents and supply chains.”

Regional data disparities

The report highlights an enhancement in data infrastructure since 2021, with a surge in studies tracking food waste globally.

The number of data points at the household level nearly doubled. However, many low- and middle-income countries still lack adequate systems to monitor progress towards meeting Sustainable Development Goal 12.3’s aim of halving food waste by 2030, especially in retail and food services.

According to the report, only four G20 countries (Australia, Japan, UK, US) and the EU possess food waste estimates suitable for tracking progress to 2030. Canada and Saudi Arabia have suitable household estimates, while Brazil’s estimate is anticipated in late 2024.

Additionally, the report highlights that food waste is not solely a concern of affluent nations, with household food waste levels varying only by seven kilograms per capita across high-income, upper-middle and lower-middle-income countries.

Moreover, hotter climates seem to produce more household food waste per capita, possibly due to increased consumption of fresh foods and inadequate cold chain systems.

Urban areas are expected to benefit significantly from efforts to enhance food waste reduction and circularity, while rural areas typically waste less food, often diverting food scraps to pets, livestock and home composting.

As of 2022, only 21 countries have incorporated food loss and/or waste reduction into their national climate plans (NDCs). The revision process for 2025 NDCs, UNEP notes, presents a crucial opportunity to elevate climate ambitions by integrating food loss and waste considerations.

Call for action: UNEP’s recommendations

UNEP is advocating for systemic action via collaborations between the public and private sectors and NGOs, emphasising the importance of working together to identify bottlenecks, develop solutions and advance progress.

The report proposes that sufficient financing can empower these partnerships to achieve reductions in food waste, decrease GHG emissions and water stress, and facilitate the sharing of best practices and innovation for sustainable, comprehensive transformation.

Lamb added: “Public-private partnerships are one key tool delivering results today, but they require support: whether philanthropic, business, or governmental, actors must rally behind programmes addressing the enormous impact wasting food has on food security, our climate, and our wallets.”

In the UK, dozens of businesses have urged the Government to mandate food waste reporting for large firms, emphasising that food waste costs the UK economy almost £22bn each year.

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