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Global Food Waste: 900 Million Tonnes Each Year

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Emily Davies reports on alarming new figures surrounding food waste.

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How much of your food ends up in the bin? Vegetables that you forgot were in the fridge, cheese that goes off before you have the chance to eat it, the yoghurt you picked up in the shop and never felt like eating. What about the bread which seems to go mouldy after you’ve eaten two slices?

The UN Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index shows that 900 million tonnes of food are thrown away annually – that’s 17% of all food available to consumers. That number consists of the bread, cheese and vegetables you and your friends and your friends’ friends discard every week. It also contains all the food waste from your favourite restaurant and takeaway. It’s also all the weirdly shaped carrots and off-colour bananas in shops that you don’t want to buy because they don’t look good. 

Over seven billion people live on this planet, and 925 million of them are starving. The food we waste every year is equivalent to 23 million trucks of food – enough to feed almost three billion people.

The good news is that during lockdown, domestic food waste has gone down in the UK. Wrap, a sustainability charity that partnered with the UN on this report, says UK residents have been planning their shopping and meals more considerately since the beginning of the pandemic. Whether this is because people don’t want to spend as much time browsing the shelves in a COVID-19 environment or if more people are becoming aware of their environmental impact, food waste is decreasing.

Nevertheless, this issue remains ongoing and is having a detrimental impact on the people and the world around us.

Why is Food Wastage So Bad?

Apart from the food waste in Europe being able to feed 200 million people, food waste is also an issue for global warming. Food waste accounts for 4.4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions each year; if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter, according to the Stop Wasting Food Movement.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most developed countries have the most detrimental impact on global food waste, with richer countries wasting as much food annually (222 million tonnes) as the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

The shocking statistics of the most wasted food groups globally are as follows:

  • 40%-50% of root crops, fruit and vegetables are wasted, as well as…

  • 35% of fish

  • 30% of cereals

  • 20% of dairy, meat and oilseeds.

By 2050, the world is projected to be housing nine billion people. To keep up with this acceleration in the number of hungry mouths to be fed, food production has to increase by 70%, and reducing food waste will a long way to meet this goal.

How is the Food Waste Number So High?

Right now, you might be trying to wrap your head around the 900 million number – I don’t blame you, it’s a big number. How could we possibly be wasting so much?

Apart from household waste, restaurants’ food waste and unsold food in shops, other factors are contributing to our wasteful culture. For example, in Africa, post-harvest food losses could feed 48 million people – food processing and poor storage significantly contribute to food loss.

This issue is not discussed nearly enough in the media, nor within our households. While the problem rests predominantly on the shoulders of the food production, sale and hospitality industries, there are things we can bear in mind so our habits have a positive impact too, including:

  • Meal-planning to ensure we don’t buy too much food

  • Use the freezer to preserve food we can’t eat right now

  • Research how to store foods properly – refrigerating certain foods and vice versa could speed up the rotting process

  • Consider making stocks, broths or other recipes out of left-over vegetable trimmings

  • Buy the fruit and veggies in the shop which are less perfect – they’ll taste the same!

  • Grow your own if possible; this will also reduce your carbon footprint – always a plus.


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