931 Million Tonnes of Food Available at Consumer Levels Is Wasted per Year

Food Waste

Wasted in 2019: 931 million tonnes of food sold to households, retailers, restaurants and other food services; Study finds food waste is a global, not just developed world, problem; Food Waste Index report helps countries track progress on UN SDG.

An estimated 931 million tonnes of food, or 17% of total food available to consumers in 2019, went into the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants, and other food services, according to new UN research conducted to support global efforts to halve food waste by 2030.

The weight roughly equals that of 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks — enough bumper-to-bumper to circle the Earth 7 times.

The Food Waste Index Report 2021, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partner organization WRAP, looks at food waste that occurs in retail outlets, restaurants and homes — counting both food and inedible parts like bones and shells. The report presents the most comprehensive food waste data collection, analysis and modeling to date, and offers a methodology for countries to measure food waste. 152 food waste data points were identified in 54 countries.

The report finds that in nearly every country that has measured food waste, it was substantial, regardless of income level. It shows that most of this waste comes from households, which discard 11% of the total food available at the consumption stage of the supply chain. Food services and retail outlets waste 5% and 2% respectively.

On a global per capita-level, 121 kilograms of consumer-level food is wasted each year, with 74 kilograms of this happening in households. The report also includes regional and national per capita estimates.

Food waste has substantial environmental, social and economic impacts. For example, at a time when climate action is still lagging, 8%-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed, when losses before consumer level are taken into account.

“Reducing food waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions, slow the destruction of nature through land conversion and pollution, enhance the availability of food and thus reduce hunger and save money at a time of global recession,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “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. The UN Food Systems Summit this year will provide an opportunity to launch bold new actions to tackle food waste globally.”

With 690 million people affected by hunger in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19, and three billion people unable to afford a healthy diet, consumers need help to reduce food waste at home.

Countries can raise climate ambition by including food waste in Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, while strengthening food security and cutting costs to households. This makes food waste prevention also a primary area for inclusion in COVID-19 recovery strategies.

A global problem

“For a long time, it was assumed that food waste in the home was a significant problem only in developed countries,” said Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP. “With the publication of the Food Waste Index report, we see that things are not so clear cut.

“With only 9 years to go, we will not achieve SDG 12 Target 3 if we do not significantly increase investment in tackling food waste in the home globally. This must be a priority for governments, international organizations, businesses, and philanthropic foundations.”

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 12.3 aims at halving per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains. One of the two indicators for the target is the Food Waste Index.

A growing number of countries have measured food waste in recent years. The reports finds that 14 countries already have household food waste data collected in a way that is compatible with the Food Waste Index. A further 38 countries have household food waste data where small changes in methodology, geographical coverage or sample size would allow them to create an SDG 12.3-compatible estimate. A total of 54 countries had data for at least one of the three sectors covered by the report.

The new global consumer-level food waste estimates were generated from existing data points and extrapolations based upon the estimates observed in other countries. With 75% of the world’s population living in a country with a directly observed food waste estimate at the household level, confidence of the estimate in this sector is higher. With far lower direct estimates at the retail and foodservice level, confidence in estimates in these sectors is lower.

Data on the breakdown between food and inedible parts wasted is available only in a few high-income countries and shows a fifty/fifty split on average at the household level. The proportion of inedible parts is an important knowledge gap and may be higher in lower-income countries.

To build on the work of the report, UNEP will launch regional working groups to help build countries’ capabilities to measure food waste in time for the next round of SDG 12.3 reporting in late 2022, and support them to develop national baselines to track progress towards the 2030 goal and design national strategies to prevent food waste. This week, WRAP has launched the UK’s first national Food Waste Action Week (1-7 March), driving home the message that wasting food feeds climate change.

4 Comments on "931 Million Tonnes of Food Available at Consumer Levels Is Wasted per Year"

  1. Clyde Spencer | March 4, 2021 at 12:07 pm | Reply

    While I agree that reducing the waste of food is a good idea, I don’t agree with the remark, “Reducing food waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions, …”

    If the discarded food is exposed to oxygen, it will either oxidize directly or be degraded by aerobic bacteria, producing carbon dioxide (CO2). If the food is in an oxygen-free environment, anaerobic bacteria will create methane (CH4).

    However, if the food is consumed, some of it will be digested and turned into body tissue, which will produce CO2 during metabolism, and be expelled with breathing. Any undigested food will be expelled through defecation and again produce CO2 and methane. Most waste treatment facilities produce significant methane in their digesters, which is flared off, producing CO2. When a person dies, the body will similarly produce CO2 and methane during decomposition, or just CO2 during cremation, plus the CO2 produced by the cremation furnace. Long-term, I suspect that there will be little difference in the amount of carbon dioxide and methane produced.

    • Your are simply forgeting that people still consume more or less the same amount of food regardless of waste. Food production emissions are significantly higher than their decomposing or waste treatment. Further more, less waste means less production, transport…
      What is concerning is the fact that governments will push behavior changes on the population while the industry stays the same.

      “The Food Waste Index Report 2021, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partner organization WRAP, looks at food waste that occurs in retail outlets, restaurants and homes — counting both food and inedible parts like bones and shells.” So, some of the “wasted food” was never even consumable?! Also, how 17% of food that was wasted accounts for 8-10% of global emissions?
      And the percentages attributed to households, restaurants and food outlets are not that meaningful, they should also provide the relative percentage between the quantity of food each place deals with and the quantity of wasted food.
      And, it would be important to establish the factors that cause the waste, this is just an observational study…

      • Clyde Spencer | March 5, 2021 at 10:19 am | Reply

        “Your [sic] are simply forgeting [sic] that people still consume more or less the same amount of food regardless of waste.”

        That is true. The question is about how waste can be reduced. If food that is currently being thrown out is still edible, then a solution is to encourage people to eat it. If food spoils, then educating people on how to better prevent spoilage, to maintain edibility, would reduce the amount thrown out. So, my point was that if less food is wasted, and is consumed as intended, the fraction that was consumed instead of being thrown out, will still produce CO2. Consumers may then buy less, which may lead to spoilage while in storage waiting to be sold, and still have to be thrown out.

        The problem is balancing supply with demand for perishable food. Too little food and prices increase and some people may go without. Too much, and food spoils before it can be sold or eaten.

        Clearly, wasted food is undesirable. However, the alternative of risking shortages is undesirable as well. It is an imperfect world. There are already cost incentives to reduce having to throw out food. Wholesalers and retailers lose money if food spoils before it is sold. Consumers lose money if they don’t eat what they bought. How can the system be tuned better?

      • Clyde Spencer | March 5, 2021 at 10:32 am | Reply

        Incidentally, it is my understanding that retailers that deal in bulk, like grocery stores, and large restaurants, commonly contract to sell food, unsuitable for human consumption, to pig farms.

        Many consumers will give food they don’t want to eat to their four-legged garbage disposals.

        However, whether it is pigs or dogs, it still produces CO2. The trick seems to be better matching supply and demand to reduce wastage.

        However, Third World countries have similar problems in that large quantities of grain are often lost to insects, while in storage. Lacking adequate refrigeration, meat and fruit have short half-lives of edibility. As I said, it is an imperfect world and what is needed are solutions, not complaints about ‘green house gases.’

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