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Global Food Wastage – Causes and impact on natural resources

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Context - FAO estimates that each year, approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted.

This food wastage represents a missed opportunity to improve global food security and the use of resources from food chains, but also to mitigate environmental impacts.

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2013 by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO): " Food wastage footprint – Impact on natural resources" 

  • Source document:FAO (2013)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts

How much food is wasted?

The global volume of food wasted per year is estimated to be 1.3 Gtonnes. This can be compared to the total agricultural production (for food and non-food uses such as textile fibers, energy crops of medicinal plants), which is about 6 Gtonnes.

Where and how food wastage occurs mostly?

Wastage happens at all steps of production, handling, storage, processing, distribution and consumption, Agricultural production being responsible for the greatest amount of total food wastage volumes, with 33% of the total.

Wastage occurring at consumption level is much more variable, with wastage in middle and high-income regions at 31–39%, but much lower in low-income regions, at 4–16%.

What is the impact of food wastage on greenhouse gas emission and climate?

Without accounting for GHG emissions from land use change, the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2-equivalent. For a sense of scale, when considering the total emissions by country, only the USA and China are responsible for more emissions.

What is the water footprint related to food wastage?

Globally, the consumption of surface and groundwater resources of food wastage (the so called blue water footprint) is about 250 km³, which is equivalent to 3.6 times consumption of the USA for the same period.

Animal products have, in general, a larger water footprint per tonne of product than crops. This is one of the reasons why it appears more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than through animal products.

What is the impact of food wastage on land use?

At world level, the total amount of food wastage in 2007 represented the production of 1.4 billion hectares of land, equal to about 30 % of the world’s agricultural land area, and larger than the surface of Canada. Low-income regions account for about two-thirds of this total. The major contributors to land occupation are meat and dairy products, with 78 % of the total, whereas their contribution to total food wastage is 11%.

Land degradation is also an important factor of food wastage. Most of the food wastage at the agricultural production stage is in regions there is land degradation or where the soil is already in poor shape, thus adding undue pressure on the land.

What is the impact of food wastage on biodiversity?

Agricultural production, in particular food crops, is responsible for 66 % of threats to species in terrestrial systems.

In the case of marine biodiversity, countries are “fishing down the food chain,” with fish catches increasingly consisting of smaller fish that are lower in the food chain, and at a higher rate than the ability of the fish stocks to renew. Any waste depletes the resources even faster.

What is the economic impact of food wastage?

On a global scale, about USD 750 billion worth of food was wasted in 2007, the equivalent of the GDP of Turkey or Switzerland, and this value is a low estimate since it mainly considers producer prices and not the value of the end product.

Synthesis

A summary of the contribution of each geographic region to food wastage can be seen in the table below. It appears globally that:

  • Cereal wastage in Asia emerges as a significant environmental hotspot;
  • Meat has high impacts in terms of land occupation and carbon footprint, even if wastage volumes in all regions are comparatively low
  • Fruit wastage emerges as a blue water hotspot in Asia, Latin America and Europe, linked to the volume of food wasted;
  • The carbon footprint of vegetables singles them out as a hotspot in Industrial Asia, Europe, and South & South East Asia;
  • Starchy roots, although experiencing high volumes of wastage, never appear in impacts top 10, since this commodity doesn't have a large carbon, water or land use footprint.

Table 3: Cross-analysis of all environmental components, by “Region*Commodity” pairs. In each column: contribution to total in percent and ranking from 1 to 10 (or 5) in bold

Table 3: Cross-analysis of all environmental components, by
						“Region*Commodity” pairs. In each column: contribution to total in percent
						and ranking from 1 to 10 (or 5) in bold

The FAO makes also recommendations on how to better evaluate food wastage assessements, which is necessary to adequately identify and manage effective remediation actions in the future


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