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Food Waste Has a Big Impact on Climate, Water, Land and Biodiversity

how to prevent food waste

Wasting 1.3 billion tons of food causes huge economic losses and a lot of needless hunger, but there are climate environmental issues deeply connected to food waste, according to a report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

FAO’s Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources is the first study to analyze the impacts of global food wastage from an environmental perspective, looking specifically at its consequences for the climate, water and land use, and biodiversity.

Some key findings from the report:

  • The carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated at 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases: making food wastage the third top GHG emitter after the U.S. and China.

  • Globally, the blue water footprint (i.e. the consumption of surface and groundwater resources) of food wastage is about 250 cubic kilometers (km3), which is equivalent to the annual water discharge of the Volga river, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.

  • Produced but uneaten food occupies almost 1.4 billion hectares of land; representing nearly 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area.

  • Fifty-four percent of the world's food wastage occurs "upstream" during production, post-harvest handling and storage, according to FAO's study. About 46 percent of it happens "downstream," at the processing, distribution and consumption stages.

While it is difficult to estimate impacts on biodiversity at a global level, the report continues, “food wastage unduly compounds the negative externalities that mono-cropping and agriculture expansion into wild areas create on biodiversity loss, including mammals, birds, fish and amphibians.”


Beyond its environmental impacts, the direct economic consequences to producers of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run about $750 billion annually, FAO's 63-page report estimates.

Achim Steiner, UN Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director, said UNEP and FAO have identified food wastage as a “major opportunity for economies everywhere to assist in a transition towards a low carbon, resource efficient and inclusive Green Economy.”

The report, he continued, “underlines the multiple benefits that can be realized, in many cases through simple and thoughtful measures by, for example, households, retailers, restaurants, schools and businesses that can contribute to environmental sustainability, economic improvements, food security and the realization of the UN Secretary General's Zero Hunger Challenge.”

UNEP and FAO are founding partners of the Think Eat Save - Reduce Your Foodprint campaign that was launched earlier in the year.

"All of us, farmers and fishers; food processors and supermarkets; local and national governments; individual consumers -- must make changes at every link of the human food chain to prevent food wastage from happening in the first place, and re-use or recycle it when we can't," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

"We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost because of inappropriate practices, when 870 million people go hungry every day," he added in statement.

The global volume of food wastage is estimated to be 1.6 billion tons of “primary product equivalents,” while the total wastage for the edible part of food is 1.3 billion tons. Compare that amount against total agricultural production (for food and non-food uses), which is about 6 billion tons.

That’s enough to take one’s breath and appetite away.

Image credit: Dan Gold via Unsplash

Bill DiBenedetto headshot

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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