Food waste is a global problem that has all the makings of a solution to another issue: global hunger. Yet the world’s governments seem helpless to address both issues with little gains, if any, to speak of.
Where nearly a billion go hungry worldwide, a third of our food is lost to waste. No doubt, we are producing enough food to feed us all. The problem lies in distribution. And it is not surprising in a world of diverse political, economic, and social systems.
Even so, policymakers, governments, world bodies, and other stakeholders will do well to understand the complexities of food waste. And it starts with getting the big picture right.
In this article, we have collated food waste statistics on the causes, dynamics, and potential goals relevant to food waste. Whether you are modeling a global program for the UN or a parent who wants to cut waste in every meal, these statistics can guide you.
Food Waste Data & Statistics
The Big Picture
The US Department of Agriculture expanded the definition of food waste from post-harvest loss to any loss in edible food mass across the entire food chain. This is significant as much of the waste happens even before the food reaches our plate. So, how much food do we waste, really?
- Around one-third of the world’s food is lost to waste or 1.3 billion tons per year.
- In micro terms, roughly 1,000 tons of food is wasted every minute.
- It is estimated that up to 50% of food is lost at the production stage alone.
- In real terms, that’s about 1.6 billion tons of raw food products never turned to consumable food to feed the hungry.
- All this wastage in the face of over 8 million people worldwide suffering from hunger and malnutrition.
- Saving even just a fourth of the total global food waste volume can feed all the world’s hungry.
Who makes the most food?
- The top food producers are China, India, the US, and Brazil in ranking order. All four countries belong to the top five most populous nations.
- The top three foods produced worldwide are corn, rice, and wheat.
- China alone produces 219 million tons of corn and 205 million tons of rice per year.
- Meanwhile, corn is the most produced food in the US at 354 million tons per year.
- In India, the top food produce is sugarcane at 341 million tons per year.
Source: World Atlas
Where Food Waste Happens
Food waste in developed countries and developing countries vary significantly not only in real numbers but where waste happens.
- The regions that waste food most in order of volume are North America & Australia/New Zealand, Europe/Russia, and East Asia.
- Much of the food waste in developed countries occur at the consumer level.
- In comparison, developing countries lose food at the production stage due to inefficient or inadequate facilities, logistics, and agricultural management.
- In economic terms, developed countries waste about $680 billion in food waste per year compared with $310 billion in developing countries.
By supply chain
Food waste happens in two major stages: at the production level and retail or consumption level. The USDA further identifies huge losses occurring at the production stage, such as in drying, milling, transportation, and processing of raw food materials.
- 75% of food waste happens at the production, postharvest handling, and storage levels.
- More than 500 million tons are lost due to crop pests and inefficient harvesting and irrigation. This makes production as the largest source of food waste.
- Another 350 million tons are estimated to be lost due to postharvest handling and storage.
- The top causes of food waste in processing are insects, birds, rodents, molds, and bacteria.
- Top causes of food waste at the retail level include faulty equipment, culling of produce, and over-ordering.
- Supermarkets, shops, and households comprise 35% of food waste. Much of the food thrown away at the consumption level are fit for eating.
Where Food Waste Is Happening
Source: FAOCreated by CompareCamp.com
By behavioral factors
In the age of socio-environmental correctness, why do people waste food wantonly? A study points to a general lack of food waste awareness among us.
- The low stigma to food waste conversely results in people failing to attach value to saving food in as much as saving energy. In fact, the study found that merely 3% of respondents feel guilty throwing away food.
- This, in contrast to the fact that 74% would turn off lights, and 55% would turn down heating to save energy and money. But the same group lacks a routine or habit to cut down food waste.
- Likewise, the over-ordering issue identified by the USDA is corroborated in this study where people buy more than enough food that they can consume. 95% claim to freeze food for later consumption while 74% feel confident of reusing leftovers. Yet 37% of the respondents don’t use leftovers.
- Those who reuse leftovers save roughly $324 per year.
Impact of Food Waste
The social and economic impact of food waste is easy to see for many. Food waste flies in the face of global hunger, while the cost in dollars is more or less exact.
- We lose $750 billion yearly on food waste, excluding fish and seafood.
- The total cost of food waste is estimated at $1 trillion.
What is largely ignored is food waste’s environmental impact. Food waste creates greenhouse emissions. Likewise, it means that the energy, arable land, water, and human capital thrown into it that could have been put to productive use otherwise, are wasted.
- Did you know that up to 30% of greenhouse gases are attributed to the global food system? This makes food waste, which is part of this system, not just a socio-economic issue but one that wreaks havoc on nature.
- Food waste releases into the atmosphere an estimated 3.3 billion tons of CO2 every year or about 1,000 tons of CO2 per minute.
- If food waste is a country, it comes third after China and the US in total greenhouse gas emission, excluding land-use changes.
- Food waste also puts pressure on water resources. Food waste consumed 250 square kilometers of freshwater or, put in another perspective, one-quarter of global freshwater is lost unnecessarily.
- Juxtapose this freshwater loss against the 4 billion people that are projected to live in places with severe water shortage by 2050.
- As for land use, around 1.4 billion hectares of arable land–or the size of the US, India, and Egypt combined–are committed to food that will never be eaten every year.
Source: Global Food Report
What the Future Holds
If we don’t do anything, we’ll only exacerbate the gap between food waste and global hunger, considering these numbers.
- World population is projected to hit 9.5 billion people by 2075.
- Or, closer to our timeline, 2 billion more people will need to be fed between this year and 2050.
- We need to produce 69% more food calories in 2050 vs. 2006 levels if we are to close the gap.
Goals & Solutions
Cutting down food waste should be done at the production and consumption level or what others had coined, between field and fork, to impact a change. The USDA encapsulates this simple solution: the best approach to reducing food waste is not to create it in the first place.
- Even without increasing food production, we can feed the additional 2 billion people from now to 2050 by simply not throwing away food.
- Other experts believe that if we can cut our food waste even by just half, we can close the food gap by 20% by 2050.
- The USDA aims to cut food waste in the country by 50% by 2030. However, it doesn’t have a single baseline figure for food waste.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, targets a 50% reduction in food waste going to landfills or, specifically, down to 109.4 pounds per person every year.
- The most preferred food waste solutions are source reduction, feed hungry people, and feed animals. The least preferred are industrial uses, composting, and incineration of landfills.
- Among the goals of the UN Sustainable Development by 2030 is reducing by half the total global food waste at the retail and consumption level per capita.
- However, retail and consumption only account for a third of total food waste, which means food waste could still increase even if the UN goal is met.
- Targeting the production level will have a better impact on food waste reduction. Some of the effective solutions implemented in developed nations include improving infrastructure, transportation, and storage systems.
- It’s not to say that the issue of food waste at the consumer level should be unaddressed. One of the ways to counter food waste at this level is to create incentives for consumers.
- Another retail-level solution is through gleaning, where food surplus is collected from grocers, restaurants, gardens, farms, and farmers’ markets and redistributed to the needy.
- The USDA and EPA had launched the US Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions consisting of companies and organizations that publicly commit to reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.
- Food waste, as part of rubbish-to-energy programs, is another solution being thought up. The global market for waste-sourced power is projected at $37.64 billion in 2020. This includes 100% biodegradable feedstock using microbes to convert food waste into biofuels.
Can We Solve Food Waste?
It is preposterous that we have a global food waste problem amidst global hunger. It is like having a flooded town sitting next to a drought-hit farmland. The solution is staring us in the face–just divert excess water to the dried-up lands, and you solve two problems with one stone.
But to experts, that solution is more simplistic than simple. The dynamics behind our food production system is complex, not the least the political, social, and economic divide around the world impact on how we make food, and how much.
Nevertheless, the problem isn’t insurmountable. Just like our experience with energy, it starts with awareness. With a clear understanding of the problem, we can frame the right next steps both at the policy and household levels. We already have a precedent to this in the way that governments and businesses today invest time, effort, and money in renewable energy while you make sure to turn the lights off when you leave your room.
- Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources (FAO)
- Institute of Mechanical Engineers
- Global Food Losses and Food Waste (FAO)
- 4 Countries That Produce the Most Food
- What Are The World’s Most Important Staple Foods?
- Global Food Waste: A Problem For The Environment and Society
- Modern Life is Rubbish: Food Waste Study Finds Only 3% Feel Stigma
- Food Loss and Food Waste
- 8 Facts to Know About Food Waste and Hunger
- GLOBAL FOOD: WASTE NOT, WANT NOT.
- Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling
- Let’s Glean!
- The future of waste: five things to look for by 2025