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FAO Says Food Waste Harms Climate, Water, Land, and Biodiversity

The world wastes 1.3 billion tons of food annually—a third of all the food that’s produced—according to a report published last week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This waste not only results in major economic loss, but also causes significant harm to the natural resources that we rely on for food production. It also has moral implications, given that an estimated 870 million people go to bed hungry every night.

Food that is produced but not eaten adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere every year. (Photo Credit: SeamePost.com)

The report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources, analyzes the impacts of global food waste from an environmental perspective, looking specifically at its consequences for the climate, water and land use, and biodiversity.

According to the report’s authors, food that is produced but not eaten consumes a volume of water three times greater than Lake Geneva and adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere every year—more than the entire global shipping industry. Approximately 1.4 billion hectares of land—28 percent of the world’s agricultural area—is used annually to produce this food.

In addition to its environmental impacts, the FAO estimates the direct economic consequences of food waste (excluding fish and seafood) to be $750 billion annually.

“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.

Food is wasted at all stages of the food chain. Fifty-four percent occurs “upstream” during production, post-harvest handling, and storage, while 46 percent occurs “downstream” during the processing, distribution, and consumption stages, according to the report. Generally, developing countries suffer more food loss during agricultural production, whereas food waste at the retail and consumer level tends to be higher in middle- and high-income regions.

The FAO proposes several solutions to reduce food waste, including better methods of food harvest, storage, processing, transport, and retailing; better communication among food chain participants; more conscientious consumption, with an emphasis on buying only what is needed and relaxing standards for the cosmetic quality of produce; legislation aimed at lowering food waste; systems that redistribute safe surplus food to those in need; and food waste recycling systems that use anaerobic digestion to break food down into usable fertilizer and biogas.

In our February newsletter, we wrote about the environmental and humanitarian consequences of food waste and asked readers for their views on solutions. We received many thoughtful responses.

Some of our readers who work on farms wrote about their methods for recycling excess organic matter. Jan Steinman of Vancouver, Canada, wrote: “I live on a co-op farm, and nothing is wasted. We have a ‘three bucket’ system: what people don’t want goes in the goat bucket (vegetable trimmings, etc.); if it isn’t suitable for the goats it goes in the chicken bucket (moldy bread or cheese, cooked grains or legumes, etc.); and if neither humans nor goats nor chickens will eat it, it goes into the compost.” Noting that many readers do not raise their own goats or chickens, Jan added, “If they go to a farmers’ market, they can surely find someone who will put their ‘waste’ to a higher use.”

Communities and municipalities are taking measures to reduce food waste as well. David Straus of New York shared: “Our county is considering purchasing a large grinder and establishing a county-wide food-composting program. They key is to charge for landfilling mixed waste but provide the opportunity to recycle/compost for free. Finished compost can be sold or given away to local gardeners and farmers.”

Across the world in India, Usha S. wrote about the role that decentralized planning can play in ensuring food security: “We have to change the way food is produced, first of all…. In India, we think that decentralized planning is [needed] for ensuring food security, safe food, and to strengthen the production systems, and make farming economically viable for the youth in the villages.”

And finally, Björn Dahlroth pointed out that wasted food is just one symptom of our imperfect food system, and that curbing waste will require complex solutions.

As a companion to its new study, the FAO has also published a “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.

For more information about food waste, click here for a United Nations short film on the topic.

How is your community responding to food waste? Let us know in the comments section below.

Sophie Wenzlau is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute.

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