Staggering Amount of Global Food Supply is Wasted

Roughly one-third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to some 1.3 billion tons per year, according to staggering new statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In the developing world, over 40% of food losses occur after harvest, while being stored or transported, and during processing and packing. In industrialized countries, over 40% of losses occur as a result of retailers and consumers discarding unwanted but often perfectly edible food.

At a time when the land, water, and energy resources necessary to feed a global population of 6.9 billion are increasingly limited – and when at least 1 billion people remain chronically hungry – food losses are an enormous waste and a failure of our food system to meet the needs of the poor.

The Worldwatch Institute’s "State of the World 2011: Nourishing the Planet," a two-year evaluation of sustainable agricultural innovations to alleviate hunger, highlights ways to make the most of the food that is produced and to make more food available to those who need it most.

150 million tons of grains are lost each year in low-income countries, six times the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the developing world, says Tristram Stuart, a contributing author to the report. 

Meanwhile, industrialized countries waste some 222 million tons of perfectly good food each year, a quantity nearly equivalent to the 230 million tons that sub-Saharan Africa produces in a year.

Unlike farmers in many developing countries, however, agribusinesses in industrial countries have numerous tools at their disposal to prevent food from spoiling – such as pasteurization and preservation facilities, drying equipment, climate-controlled storage units, transport infrastructure, and chemicals designed to expand shelf-life.

"Throwing away cosmetically ‘imperfect’ produce on farms, discarding edible fish at sea, over-ordering stock for supermarkets, and purchasing or cooking too much food in the home, are all examples of profligate negligence toward food," writes Stuart in his chapter, "Post-Harvest Losses: A Neglected Field."

"Humanity is approaching – and in some places exceeding – the limits of potential farmland and water supplies that can be used for farming," notes Worldwatch Institute Executive Director Robert Engelman. "We’re already facing food price spikes and the early impacts of human-caused climate change on food production. We can’t afford to overlook simple, low-cost fixes to reduce food waste."

Nourishing the Planet offers the following three low-cost approaches that can go a long way toward making the most of the abundance that our food system already produces. Innovations in both the developing and industrialized worlds include:

  • Getting surpluses to those who need it. As mountains of food are thrown out every day in the cities of rich countries, some of the poorest citizens struggle to figure how they will get their next meal.

    Feeding America coordinates a nationwide network of food banks that receive donations from grocery chains. Florida’s Harry Chapin Food Bank, one of Feeding America’s partners, distributed 5.2 million kilograms of food in 2010. In New York City, City Harvest collects some 12.7 million kilograms of excess food each year from restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms and delivers it to nearly 600 NYC food programs.

  • Raising citizen awareness and reducing waste to landfills. Those who can easily afford to buy food – and throw it away – rarely consider how much they discard or find alternatives to sending unwanted food to the landfill.
    In 2010, San Francisco became the first city to pass legislation requiring all households to separate both recycling and compost from garbage. They think residents are becoming more aware of food waste since they began separating it from garbage. The resulting nutrient-rich compost is made available to area organic farmers and wine producers, boosting soil productivity and reducing resource consumption in agriculture. 
  • Improving storage and processing for small-scale farmers in developing countries. In the absence of expensive, Western-style grain stores and processing facilities, smallholders can undertake a variety of measures to prevent damage to their harvests.

    In Pakistan, the United Nations helped 9% of farmers cut storage losses up to 70% by simply replacing jute bags and mud constructions with metal grain storage containers.

    Purdue University is helping communities in rural Niger maintain year-round cow pea supplies by making low-cost, hermetically sealed plastic bags available through the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) program. Another innovative project uses solar energy to dry mangoes after harvest; each year, more than 100,000 tons of the fruit go bad before reaching the market in western Africa.

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