UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021: a brief analysis

When I first saw the headline from the UNEP report that 931 million tonnes of food is wasted a year, I was happy! In 2011, an FAO report said it was 1.3 BILLION tonnes.

But then I read closer – it was because the UNEP report did not include farm-level food waste, and the FAO report did. In all likelihood, the 1.3-billion-tonne statistic has probably increased in 10 years.

Data gaps was a huge issue in this report. There was insufficient data for most countries, and no data at all for the poorest countries. The table below does not even try to include farm-level data.

The extent of the gaps in data in the UNEP report, p. 8

In fact, the word ‘farm’ does not appear in the report at all. This is a huge problem, because according to Feedback, farms could be producing as much as a quarter of our food waste. More alarming is that UNEP is urging countries to replicate this methodology, but leaving out farm-level waste means nations will not be equipped to sufficiently measure food waste in their countries. UNEP go on to say this data will enable global comparisons; but how can you compare progress if everyone is failing to capture a quarter of food wasted?

Two of the authors are from WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan, a government-funded body) in the UK. This made me my heart sink a little. WRAP have notoriously left farm-level food waste out of all UK datasets. And now it appears they are encouraging this flawed methodology to be used in the rest of the world.

In the recommendations, the report emphasises that consumer food waste is “everybody’s problem” and this is where the most progress can be made. Yet for the UK, this currently means individual behaviour change and not system change. The most recent Waste Prevention Programme consultation, closing on 10 June 2021, only includes education campaigns as a solution to citizen food waste prevention.

WRAP and the UK government must urgently look outside the box when it comes to food waste prevention in households. I list seven possible system change solutions that will help solve consumer food waste in this blog, which include rethinking objects such as the fridge and reforming the supermarket model.

Being sustainable should be as easy as possible for everyone, and instead of telling consumers to behave differently, the government should look at how they can make this desirable behaviour the default option. At the same time, they must start recording food waste on farms. This is the kind of ambition and approach that UNEP should be advocating.

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