19 September 2013

The economic and environmental cost of wasting food

On 11 September, FAO published a report on food wastage that shows how food mismanagement impacts climate change and natural resources (land, water and biodiversity)

The main conclusions of the report are very telling:

  1. Every year, the food produced and wasted uses up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of river Volga in Russia, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva between Switzerland and France

  2. The area used to produce this wasted food covers around 1.4 billion ha, i.e. 30% of world agricultural area

  3. To produce this wasted food, 3.3 gigatonnes of green house gasses are emitted, which puts this activity just behind the two most polluting countries in the world (The USA and China) in terms of green house gasses emission

  4. The direct economic impact of this waste on producers (excluding fish and shellfish) of around USD 750 billion, which is equivalent to the GDP of Switzerland or Turkey or to 80% of the GDP of Sub-Saharan countries (South Africa excluded).

According to the FAO study, more than half of the food losses occur ‘‘upstream’’, i.e. during the production, marketing and storage phases. The rest of the wastage takes place ‘‘downstream’’, i.e. during the processing, retail and consumption phases. Upstream losses occur mainly in poor countries while downstream wastage takes place mostly in industrialised countries. The study emphasises that the later the loss in the food chain, the stronger its impact on the environment, as the wasted product incorporates more resources (energy, packaging, etc.).

In rich countries, behaviour of consumers is the main cause of wastage. It is therefore also the main potential source of solution, provided consumers become aware of the problem and change the way they consume. In poor countries, harvesting, transporting and storage techniques are the main culprits. These are the areas where investments should take place if losses are to be reduced.

FAO also publishes a guide on how to reduce losses and wastage. This guide makes a number of recommendations among which highlights include: improving storage technology, reducing excessive and unsustainable packaging, changing the management mode for retail sales, making more flexible the regulation on shell life and best-before date, the recycling of goods eliminated from the food chain (e.g. tax holidays on food products given shortly before expiry date as already is the case in the USA), their use for producing energy, etc.

Reducing food wastage would certainly contribute to make the food system more sustainable. Whereas dominant thinking is that to feed Humanity by 2050 will require to increase food production by 60 to 70% by adopting more intensive technologies based on extensive use of fertilisers, chemical products and GMOs, a large reduction of wastage would provide an opportunity for a smoother transition towards a more environmentally-benign agriculture that is the only solution for protecting natural resources, emitting less green house gasses and that will be able to feed Humanity while giving a deserved space for the mass of peasants who are now excluded from the world food system and find themselves in a situation of chronic undernourishment.

Further reading:

A (faulse) myth on hunger: organic agriculture will never be able to feed the world


Last update:    September 2013

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