The world wastes roughly a sixth of the food produced each year

Each year, the world wastes about one-sixth of the food available to consumers. That’s the finding of a new United Nations report. It crunched numbers for 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. The report now estimates global food losses at about 931 million metric tons (1.03 billion U.S. tons). That’s an average of 121 kilograms (267 pounds) for each man, woman and child on Earth.

What isn’t eaten also wastes all of the resources used to make that food, notes Martina Otto. Based near Paris, France, she works for the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP). Those resources include the water, energy, money, human labor and more.

Wasted food “does not feed people, but it does feed climate change,” added Otto during a March 4 news conference.

Some 690 million people go hungry each year. More than 3 billion people can’t afford a healthy diet. At the same time, the activities that had produced all of the lost and wasted food spewed 8 to 10 percent of all global greenhouse-gas emissions. Reducing food waste could ease hunger and potentially lower that pollution. That’s the conclusion of Food Waste Index Report 2021, the report issued March 4. It was produced by UNEP and WRAP, an environmental charity based in the United Kingdom.

The report’s authors collected data on food-waste from 54 countries. Most food that goes uneaten — 61 percent — is thrown out by home cooks and diners. Food services, such as restaurants, accounted for 26 percent more of the “lost” food. Groceries and other stores were responsible for 13 percent of the wasted food.

Going in, Otto says, “We thought waste was predominantly a problem in rich countries.” In fact, the new report finds, food waste is a big problem in nations rich and poor.

While the report is the best analysis of the issue to date, several data gaps remain. The countries surveyed are home to just 75 percent of the world’s population. What happens in other places remains unknown. And only 23 countries provided waste estimates for food losses by restaurants or retail (grocery) stores. The researchers tried to account for such gaps. To do this, they made estimates based on what they learned in parts of the world that do tally such data. The report also does not exclude data for food-related materials that usually are not not eaten. That last group includes eggshells and bones, for instance.

Otto recommends that countries begin making more efficient use of food a part of their climate strategies and their COVID-19 recovery plans. “Food waste has been largely overlooked in national climate strategies,” Otto said. “We know what to do. And we can take action quickly.”

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