In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN found that globally, we waste ONE THIRD of the food we produce. According to that estimate, this equates to 1.3 billion tonnes of food a year.
For our climate, this is vast. Rotting food emits methane, a greenhouse gas more potent, if shorter-lasting, than carbon dioxide. If global food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the USA.
The Waste and Recycling Action Plan (WRAP) is in charge of tackling food waste in the UK. It estimates we waste 9.5 million tonnes of food a year, which creates 36 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. Overall, food waste costs £20 billion to the UK.
Although sectors like hospitality and manufacturing waste food in huge quantities, the majority of post-farm food waste in the UK comes from the household.
It is important to note that this diagram does not show how retail affects food waste in manufacturing or at home; the 3% in retail is just on their own premises.
There is still a huge dataset missing from the UK’s food waste total: farm-level food waste. Feedback estimates that food that is wasted on farms could equate around 25% of the UK’s total, reducing the proportion of household food waste to 50%, not 70% as in the graphic above.
WWF published a report in July 2021 demonstrating that 1.2 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally on farms. This is a huge deal. It means that the FAO’s 2011 estimate of 1.3 billion tonnes must be updated to 2.5 billion tonnes, meaning even greater impact of food waste on climate.
Land use and biodiversity loss
When food is wasted, all the land, water, energy and human labour used to produce it is wasted too.
An FAO report in 2015 found that 1.4 billion hectares of land on earth is used to produce food that is never consumed. If that land were a country, it would be the second biggest country in the world after Russia.
This does not factor in WWF’s 2021 calculations. They estimate that the total area of land used to produce food that was lost or wasted on farms globally equates to about 4.4 million kilometres squared, an area larger than the Indian subcontinent.
All of this land could have been used for precious habitat instead. WWF found that wasted meat and dairy in particular meant more threat to biodiversity, as a lot of land is needed to not just house livestock, but also to grow crops to feed them. Moreover, farming livestock leads to persecution of predators, habitat degradation from overgrazing, and pollution, all which contribute to biodiversity loss.
At the same time, 820 million people, or 1 in 9 people around the world are going hungry. Over 20% of children under 5 have stunted growth due to malnutrition.
Food waste is often conflated with food poverty. 8.4 million people in the UK are living in food insecure households, and 2.5 million people used food banks in 2020/2021. In the UK, food that cannot be sold in supermarkets is often distributed to food banks. This allows supermarkets to get away with overproducing food in the first place, and also does not solve the root problem of food insecurity.
Academics and campaigners have made it clear that the solution to food waste is not to redistribute it to food banks. Some say it takes the responsibility of food poverty away from government, and justifies continuing to grossly overproduce food. The British Medical Journal recently said that ‘“leftover” food for “left behind” people will neither address the underlying cause of a person’s need for charitable food aid nor reduce levels of surplus food’.
This is Rubbish campaigns to reduce industry and supply chain food waste, and emphasises that food banks and food redistribution are only a short-term solution. They advocate for a universal basic income, so that people can comfortably afford food, while food waste is prevented at its source.
Thankfully, food waste is being talked about now more than ever, and with a critical eye. Like many polluting sectors, the conversation is shifting away from individual behaviour change to bigger, systemic changes. We will need both to solve the food waste crisis, but the onus is on governments, businesses and multi-national organisations to make the most difference.
Click here for ‘What we can do about food waste’.
Image by Jill Wellington