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14 Sep, 2013

FAO report: 1.3 billion tonnes of food, worth $750 billion, wasted annually

fao media release

Rome, 11 September 2013 – The waste of a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year is not only causing major economic losses but also wreaking significant harm on the natural resources that humanity relies upon to feed itself, says a new FAO report released today.

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 tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere.

In addition to 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.

“We all – farmers and fishers; food processers 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.

“In addition the environmental imperative, there is a moral one: We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste, when 870 million people go hungry every day, ” he added.

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

The tool-kit 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.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, said:”UNEP and FAO have identified food waste and loss-food wastage-as a major opportunity for economies everywhere to assist in a transition towards a low carbon, resource efficient and inclusive Green Economy. Today’s excellent report by the FAO underlines the multiple benefits that can be realized- in many cases through simple and thoughtful measures by for example households, retailers, restaurants, schools and businesses-that can contribute to environmental sustainability, economic improvements, food security and the realization of the UN Secretary General’s Zero Hunger Challenge.We would urge everyone to adopt the motto of our joint campaign: Think Eat Save-Reduce Your Foodprint!”.

UNEP and FAO are founding partners of the Think Eat Save-Reduce Your Foodprint campaign that was launched earlier in the year and whose aim is to assist in coordinating world-wide efforts to manage down wastage.

Where wastage happens

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

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.

Hot spots

Several world food wastage “hot-spots” stand out in 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.

Causes of food wastage – and options for addressing them

A combination of consumer behavior and lack of communication in the supply chain underlies the higher levels of food waste in affluent societies, according to FAO. Consumers fail to plan their shopping, overpurchase, 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.

To tackle 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, a particularly harmful GHG.

Funding for the Food Wastage Footprint report and toolkit was provided by the government of Germany.

What is food wastage?

Food loss is the unintended reduction in food available for human consumption that results from inefficiencies in supply chains: poor infrastructure and logistics, lack of technology, insufficient skills, knowledge and management capacity. It mainly occurs at production- postharvest and processing stages, for example when food goes unharvested or is damaged during processing, storage and transport and disposed of.

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

The term food wastage refers to the two in combination.

Food wastage: Key facts and figures

  • The global volume of food wastage s estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes of “primary product equivalents.” Total food wastage for the edible part of this amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes.
  • Food wastage’s carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year.
  • The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km3) is equivalent than three times the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
  • Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28% percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted.
  • Agriculture is responsible for a majority of threats to at-risk plant and animal species tracked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  • Only a low percentage of all food wastage is composted: much of it ends up in landfills, and represents a large part of municipal solid waste. Methane emissions from landfills represents one of the largest sources of GHG emissions from the waste sector.
  • Home composting can potentially divert up to 150 kg of food waste per household per year from local collection authorities.
  • Developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural production, while in higher in middle- and high-income regions, food waste at the retail and consumer level tends to be higher.
  • The direct economic consequences of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run to the tune of $750 billion annually.

What governments, farmers, food businesses – and you – can do about food waste

Reduce and prevent

One major front for action in the effort to reduce food wastage is developing better food harvest, storage, processing, transport and retailing processes, according to FAO’s guide, Toolkit: Reducing the Food Wastage Footprint, released alongside its new report on the environmental consequences of food waste.

Harvest losses have several causes, including bad timing of and poor conditions during the harvest as well is inadequate techniques and equipment. Similarly, lack of good infrastructure for transportation, storage, cooling and marketing cause food to spoil, especially in hot climates.

Both the private and public sectors need to increase investments to address such shortcomings; doing so will also have additional benefits for food security and mitigating climate change, land degradation and biodiversity erosion..

In addition to these core investments, new technologies can help too. Improved rice-storage bags in the Philippines have helped cut losses of that staple grain by 15 percent. In West Africa, use of solar dryers to extend the shelf life of fruit and tubers is showing promise in reducing post-harvest losses.

Often, food losses can be significantly reduced simply through training farmers in best practices-this too merits investing in, according to FAO’s toolkit.

Joining farmers together in cooperatives or professional associations can greatly help reduce food losses by increasing their understanding of the market, enabling more efficient planning, enabling economies of scale and improving their ability to market what they produce.

On the retail and consumer side, raising awareness of the problem – and how to prevent it-is just as important, according to FAO.

And businesses and households alike need to implement better monitoring to improve data on the scale of wastage and where it occurs.

Business – both those operating within the food chain as well as others with a large “food footprint” (large cafeterias, for instance) – can conduct food waste audits to determine how and why they waste food and identify opportunities to improve their performance.

Households can conduct relatively simple food waste audits as well.

Better communication among all participants in food supply chains will be crucial. In particular, there is vast room for improvement improving communication between suppliers and retailers to match demand and supply. Discrepancies between demand and supply are a major cause of food wastage. They can involve farmers not finding a market for products and leaving them to rot in the field; mothers cooking for five family members while only three actually make it to dinner; supermarkets downsizing product orders at the last minute, leaving producers with unsalable products; or restaurants overestimating demand and overstocking food supplies that go bad.

Reduced, or better, food packaging has a role to play as well -excessive or unsustainably sourced packing forms part of the environmental cost of food.

Especially in developed countries, more environmentally-minded food retailing is needed, says FAO – for example, moving away from the practice of displaying very large quantities of food (perceived as contributing to increased sales) or discarding food when it starts to approach the end of its shelf life.

Rejection of food products on the basis of aesthetic or safety concerns is often another a major cause of food losses and waste. In some cases, farmers discard between 20-40 percent of their fresh produce because it doesn’t meet retailer’s cosmetic specifications.

Regulations and standards on aesthetic requirements for fruit and vegetables could stand to be revised. Some supermarkets have already begun relaxing their standards on fruit appearance, selling “mis-shaped” items for a reduced price and helping raise consumers’ awareness that  odd-shaped does not mean bad.

Better consumption habits are also badly needed. In developed countries, a significant part of total food wastage occurs at the consumer level; in some places this is a trend that continues to rise.

In addition to conducting household food waste audits, consumers can take many steps to reverse these trends, such as: making weekly menu plans, buying so-called “ugly fruits and vegetables,” ensuring that refrigerators are working properly, using wilting produce in soups, and making better use of leftovers. Smaller servings, rotating older food items towards the front of shelves and refrigerators, freezing surplus items, and composting waste can also help.

One factor that often contributes to food waste by consumers is confusion over sell-by and best-before dates, notes the FAO toolkit. In some cases “over-zealous” legislation has been adopted and should be revisited and revised; lawmakers and other authorities should also issue clearer and more flexible guidelines for businesses and consumers alike.

Governments must do more to implement legislation aimed at lowering food wastage, says FAO. According to the toolkit, “Legislators will have to adopt a range of measures which may vary from broad policy frameworks to statements of intent, from soft law measures like recommendations and guidelines to more decisive legislation, such as directives, regulations and statutory acts.”


Markets for products that wouldn’t normally stay in the food chain must be developed, argues Reducing the Food Wastage Footprint Gleaning, for example, is the practice of gathering groups that would, for one reason or the other, be left in the fields to rot and be plowed under. In some places, entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in acquiring such produce at reduced rates and marketing it, developing new food value chains.

Similarly, markets can be developed for products rejected by retailers but still good for consumption – farmers’ markets are already playing a role here.

Redistributing safe surplus food to those in need represents “the best option” for dealing with food waste, argues FAO’s study.

At present, the amount of food redistributed to charities that feed people remains a tiny fraction of the edible surplus food available, due to the fact that such food redistribution faces a number of barriers.

“Retailers are largely influenced by the idea that it is cheaper and easier to send wastage to the landfill, although higher landfill taxes are now working as a deterrent,” explains FAO’s toolkit. But, it adds, the factor that has most deterred businesses from donating food surpluses is the risk of being held legally liable in case of intoxication, illness or other injury. Increasingly, governments are looking at ways to smooth the process and afford protections to food donors should products given away in good faith cause illness.


In order for cities and local governments to efficiently and effectively recycle food waste, actions taken at the household level to separate it out are essential   recycling schemes only work when waste is properly sorted at the source. Judiciously used, regulations can spur businesses and households to reduce food waste and better manage it when it comes time for recycling.

Rather than merely disposing of such waste in landfills, the use of anaerobic digestion to break it down into digestate – which can be used as fertilizer – and biogas, which can be used as an energy source or injected into the gas grid –  is environmentally preferable to both composting and landfill disposal.

Where digestion is not possible, composting represents the best fall-back option. At the individual level, home composting can potentially divert up to 150 kg of food waste per household per year from local collection authorities.

Finally, incineration of food waste with the energy released being recovered presents the option of last resort for preventing food waste from ending up in landfills. Methane emissions from landfills represent the largest source of GHG emissions from the entire waste sector, contributing around 700 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.

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