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. In all likelihood, the 1.3-billion-tonne statistic has probably increased in 10 years, not decreased.

UNEP’s study explicitly left out farm-level food waste, because the FAO splits food ‘loss’ (from primary production) and food ‘waste’ (retail and consumption) into two distinct categories, and UNEP only focuses on ‘waste’. But according to Feedback, farms could be producing as much as a quarter of our food waste.

Nevertheless, data was lacking even in the areas that UNEP is responsible for. The report illustrates that there was insufficient data for most countries for food waste, and no data at all for the poorest countries. More alarming is that UNEP go on to say their methodology should be replicated and will enable global comparisons; but how can you compare progress if there are glaring holes in data?

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

There are issues with dividing different levels of food waste into two categories. This implies that retail and consumption-level food waste is not affected by activities earlier in the supply chain, and that food waste on farms is not affected by retail and consumption models.

The word ‘loss’ also suggests inevitability and that something happened outside of human control; the food waste ‘lost’, not negligently or deliberately wasted. It is true that unexpected weather events cause food to be destroyed on farms, but it is more likely that unsustainable consumption models force farms to overproduce food.

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, which closed on 10 June 2021, only included education campaigns as a solution to preventing food waste in homes.

The UN and governments 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 measuring food waste holistically, taking into account activities throughout the supply chain. This is the kind of ambition and approach that UNEP should be advocating.

This blog was edited on 11 September following the July 2021 report by WWF on food waste on farms.

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