The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) wanted to find out per capita food waste generated after the food reached retail stores, restaurants and canteens and homes. They scoured research studies and data to estimate the amount wasted.
Only 52 countries had data on the volume of food waste generated per capita, UNEP reported in the Food Waste Index, 2021.
In India, the researchers could find only three studies to rely on. All of them dealt with food waste generated at only the household level.
Using this limited data, they calculated the waste generated across the globe. According to the extrapolated data:
Every individual wastes some 121 kilograms of food each year. Out of this, 74 kg is at the household level while 32 kg and 15 kg are at food service and retail level respectively. Overall, 17 per cent of food is lost between retail and home.
Contrary to popular belief, the findings showed that low-income countries wasted more food than the rich ones. While high-income countries wasted 79 kg per capita per year of food at the household level, upper-middle income and lower-middle income countries wasted 76 and 91 kg per capita per year of food respectively.
But there is a catch. The reason for this conflicting finding is the way food waste has been defined in the study: It included inedible parts such as bones, shells and vegetable peels along with the edible portions.
This definition overlooks the fact that in developed countries, processed food reaches homes while in lower-income countries, raw food is brought in and meals are prepared from scratch. This means that in poor countries, inedible parts are discarded at household levels.
In developed countries, similar waste would have been generated at the processing unit, but it is not in the purview of UNEP’s index.
The data on the breakdown between food and inedible parts wasted is available only in a few high-income countries. It showed that around 50 per cent of food wasted at home is inedible. The report acknowledged that the proportion of inedible parts may be higher in lower-income countries, but because the data unavailable, it could not factor the same in their results.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization created the Food Loss Index in 2018, which measures losses across the supply chain, up to but not including retail. This index, however, does not provide data comparable with the Food Waste Index and looks only at limited commodities.
Nearly 14 per cent of food across the globe is wasted during agriculture and processing level, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food and Agriculture report published in 2019.
Central and southern Asia accounted for most food loss (20 per cent) between post harvest and distribution periods. But inedible food does not get recorded here either.
UNEP suggests that countries disaggregate the data on food waste. Other than separating the edible from the inedible, information on the destination of waste — sewers, home composting and animal feed — would help in policies and interventions to reduce waste.
Developing as well as poor countries need to quickly get their acts together and collate data on food waste in local conditions. For India, which fails even to segregate wet and dry waste, this may remain a pipe dream for a long time.
Segregation would also help use traditional methods of dealing with waste. In rural areas, a large part of the vegetable waste is used to feed livestock.
Reducing food waste is crucial for many reasons. One, the food wasted could have been fed to someone. About 25 per cent of available calories and protein are lost globally. This includes 10-15 per cent fats and 18-41 per cent vitamins and minerals, including 23-33 per cent of vitamin A, folate, calcium, iron and zinc.
At the same time, resources such as water, land, energy, fertilisers used to grow food are also wasted.
Food systems have been identified as one of the major contributors to climate change. The United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 underlines that countries halve their per capita food waste.
A 50 per cent reduction in food waste alone could meet the 2 degrees Celsius limit set under the Paris Agreement.
India produces 50 kg / capita / year of food waste at the household level, according to the baseline created by UNEP. If half of this is inedible waste, the remaining 25 kg / capita / year can be easily managed.
Food Waste and Climate Change
A landmark United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 on global warming made clear the disastrous effects of allowing the global average temperature to increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) (measured between 1750 and 2100).The report indicated a pathway to avoid catastrophe
The Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use sector accounted for around 13 per cent of CO2, 44 per cent of methane and 81 per cent of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from human activities between 2007 and 2016.
That is around 13 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent or 23 per cent of total net anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). For a two-in-three chance of staying within 1.5°C of warming, methane emissions from agriculture need to reduce by 24 to 47 per cent by 2050 (relative to a 2010 baseline)
N2O emissions from the same sector need to reduce as much as 26 per cent. The report also highlighted the need for carbon sequestration — trapping carbon through technological or natural solutions — including enhancing soil carbon through sustainable land management.
The ‘food’ sector is broader than agriculture. It includes harvesting, transportation, storage and retail of food crops and products. Taken as its own sector, it accounts for between 21 and 37 per cent of the total human-caused GHG emissions.
Around 30 per cent of food produced is wasted, accounting for around 4.5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent or 8 to 10 per cent of global GHG emissions.
Food waste, which represents irresponsible consumption, should be an immediate target of emission reduction efforts in this sector. As with most efforts to address the climate crisis, the focus needs to be on the developed world. The median amount of food waste per capita in large developed economies is significantly higher than in large developing economies, according to data available on the Food and Agricultural Organization.
The developing country median is significantly propped up by Brazil, which has the highest figure for per capita food waste (477 kg per 1,000 people) for any country, by quite a margin.
That is largely explained by Brazil’s domestic bio-fuels sector that generates a huge amount of sugarcane demand (and waste).
Without Brazil and its massive biofuel footprint, the median per capita food waste for large developing economies is around 57 kg, significantly lower than the developed countries’ median.
The IPCC recognises the value of replacing fuels like oil and natural gas with biofuels, but also cautions that they place huge demands on land, leading to desertification, land degradation and food insecurity. Precisely estimating the climate impact of this waste is a challenge. The emissions intensity of food production and distribution systems varies across economies.
Per capita food wastage footprint on climate in high-income countries is more than double that of low-income countries due to wasteful food distribution and consumption patterns in high-income countries, according to a 2011 FAO estimate.
The data clearly explains why food waste has to be contained in order to fight climate change. And in doing so, it also highlights the need for food waste management and reduction.