What you need to know about combatting food loss and waste

  • Author(s): UNEP

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As the world searches for ways to counter the climate crisis, experts are turning to food systems for solutions. Research from the IPCC shows that food loss and waste is responsible for a staggering 8-10 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.

So, where does this food loss come from?

“Food loss and waste occurs at every stage of the supply chain but is concentrated on the farm and in the home,” says Clementine O’Connor, a food systems expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “The middle of the supply chain generates comparatively small volumes of food waste but has resounding influence over how food is grown, purchased and eaten.”

O’Connor’s comments came just ahead of the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, which falls on 29 September. The day is designed to push governments, businesses and consumers to address a prime shortcoming of the world’s food systems, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres said are “putting historic pressure on our natural resources, climate and natural environment.”

Reforming food systems

The UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 revealed that around 931 million tonnes of food waste was generated in 2019, 61 per cent of which came from households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail.

Experts say there are some simple ways to stem those losses.

Consumers can help reduce the amount of food lost in transport by buying locally grown produce, including at places like farmers’ markets. Supporting local farms also fosters food security and can help domestic agriculturalists adapt to climate change,O’Connor says.

Growing your own food can help you enjoy produce at peak ripeness, but systemic changes, at country and city-level, are needed to dramatically reduce food waste, O’Connor added.

Urban solutions

About 70 per cent of food consumption occurs at the urban level. Experts say city governments can help create circular food systems by raising awareness about food loss, promoting urban agriculture, providing free food waste recycling services, and banning organic waste from landfills.

With food prices 34 per cent higher than this time last year, consumers also have a powerful incentive to reduce food waste. Yet new research from Unilever and the non-governmental organization Wrap shows that food waste costs families with children 780 pounds sterling per year in the United Kingdom and US$1,900 per year in the United States. “Alongside reducing energy and water usage and rethinking transportation, cutting food waste is an important way we can all cut our costs,” O’Connor says.

An estimated 3.1 billion people worldwide do not have a healthy diet, and some 828 million people go hungry. Since 2019, the number of people experiencing hunger as a result of the pandemic has increased by more than 100 million. All of this means there is an urgent need to accelerate action to reduce food loss and waste.

Signs of hope

The good news is that progress is being made. The Courtauld Commitment has supported a 27 per cent reduction in food waste since 2007 in the United Kingdom. Similar partnerships are advancing rapidly in Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, and parts of the United States.

For those who want to make a difference, O’Connor says, the transformation can happen at the dinner table. “Eat your leftovers. Buy and cook the right amount –small shops can help in purchasing more accurate quantities and using a cup measure can help get portion sizes right.”

Other practical steps include scheduling a day to cook up anything hiding in the fridge before restocking and sharing excess food with friends and neighbours, especially before leaving for a trip. Or growing fruits and vegetables, pickling surplus, composting inedible scraps and asking local governments about separate food waste collections.

Dietary changes can help too, O’Connor says. “Eating a wide variety of plants is good for your health and the planet – thirty different kinds per week is my current objective.”

In December, the world will gather for the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal to strike a landmark agreement to guide global actions on biodiversity through 2030.

The negotiations offer a unique opportunity to transform agriculture and food systems to benefit people and the planet through the sustainable use and conservation of nature.

For more information about food loss and waste, contact Clementine O’Connor: clementine.oconnor@un.org


About the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste

The International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste observed for the third time on 29 September 2022 will make a clear call to action for public and private entities, from across the food system, and consumers, to work together to cut food loss and waste to enhance the efficient use of natural resources, mitigate climate change, and support food security and nutrition.

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