2.5 Billion Tons of Wasted Food Compound Climate Change, Study Shows

Mass quantities of uneaten food are devastating for people and the environment alike, concludes new research by WWF.

Dump of organic garbages with remains of fruits and bread in decomposition

Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty Images

More than 900 million people around the world do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations World Food Program, which tracks core indicators of acute hunger in near real-time across 92 different countries. With a number that large, one can only assume: To feed the hungry, the world needs more food.

But that assumption is dead wrong, finds a new report by conservation organization WWF. Titled "Driven to Waste," it asserts that the world has plenty of food to go around—it just happens to waste a good chunk of it.

How much is shocking: WWF estimates that 2.5 billion tons of food are wasted globally every year, which is equivalent to the weight of 10 million blue whales. That’s 1.2 billion tons more than previously estimated and approximately 40% of all the food that’s cultivated by farmers. Of the total food that goes uneaten, 1.2 billion tons is lost on farms and 931 million tons is wasted at retail, at foodservice outlets, and in consumers’ homes. The remainder is lost during post-farm transportation, storage, manufacturing, and processing of food.

Although those numbers are astonishing in their own right, there’s another disturbing lens through which to view them, according to WWF, which suggests that food waste should be viewed not only in relation to world hunger but also in the context of climate change. Food production, they point out, consumes vast amounts of land, water, and energy, which in turn impacts the environment in ways that contribute to the global climate crisis. In fact, “Driven to Waste” declares that food waste accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally—which is higher than previous estimates of 8%.

To put an even finer point on it, WWF reports that food waste on farms generates 2.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which constitutes 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and 16% of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture—equivalent to the emissions from 75% of all cars driven in the United States and Europe over the course of a year.

Emissions aren’t the only problem, though. Also problematic is land use, according to WWF, which estimates over 1 billion acres of land is used to grow food that is lost on farms. That’s larger than the Indian subcontinent and a significant swath of land that could otherwise be used for rewilding efforts, which have been shown to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“We have known for years that food loss and waste is a huge problem that can be minimized, which in turn could reduce the impact of food systems on nature and climate. This report shows us the problem is likely bigger than we had thought,” WWF Global Food Loss and Waste Initiative Lead Pete Pearson said in a statement.

The size of the food-waste problem demands global action, according to Pearson and his colleagues, who argue for interventions that take into account the “socio-economic and market factors that shape the agricultural system.” Shortening long food supply chains, for example, could give farmers more visibility into their end markets, which could help them estimate food production needs more accurately. Likewise, giving farmers more ability to negotiate with buyers could help them improve their incomes for the purpose of investing in waste-reducing training and technologies.

Government policies that incentivize food waste reduction also can be helpful, as can public pressure, according to WWF, which says educated consumers can become “active food citizens” whose pocketbook advocacy can “drive changes that support farmers in reducing food loss and waste.”

Driven to Waste makes it clear that providing access to technology and training on farms is not enough; decisions made further down the supply chain by business and governments have a significant impact on the levels of food lost or wasted on farms,” said report co-author Lilly Da Gama, food loss and waste program manager at WWF-UK. “To achieve a meaningful reduction, national governments and market actors must take action to support farmers across the world and commit to halving food waste across all stages of the supply chain. Current policies are not ambitious enough.”

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  1. "Driven to Waste." World Wildlife Fund.