If the amount of food the world wastes was a country, it would be topped only by China and the U.S. in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new UN report.
The report, published Wednesday by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, found each year about a third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide — about 1.3 billion metric tons — is wasted, a practice which emits the equivalent of about 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s about twice the amount of carbon emitted from the U.S.’s transportation sector and close to twice the yearly emissions of India. That wasted food also wastes water — the report states that about 250 cubic kilometers of ground and surface water is used each year to produce food that is ultimately wasted, an amount about three times the volume of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Tackling the problem of food waste isn’t simple — the report notes that food waste is produced differently in different regions of the world. In general, high-income regions waste significantly more food than developing regions, and in those regions, more food is wasted at the consumption level, as a result of people buying too much food and throwing away what they aren’t able to eat. This happens at a much lower rate in low-income regions, where food waste is often caused by inefficient farming practices and the lack of proper equipment and storage areas. The report suggests more investment in sustainable harvesting and storage methods, and also urges businesses in the developed world to donate extra food to charities instead of dumping it in landfills. That suggestion can be harder than it seems to carry out — in the U.S., many charities are often worried about violating health codes in their states or cities by accepting leftover food that isn’t still in its can or package.
Reducing this food waste isn’t just necessary to help the climate — it’s important if the planet wants to avoid future spikes in food insecurity. By 2050, the report notes, food production will need to increase by 60 percent in order to meet the Earth’s growing population’s demand. Reducing food waste would lessen this need to increase production and would help alleviate further strain on natural resources.
The global average for food waste still trails the American average — about 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is thrown away. Some in the U.S. is starting to wake up to this fact — the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency have teamed up in an attempt to educate consumers and retailers about food waste and its effects, and New York City unveiled a new food recycling program in June. That program will take about a tenth of the food wasted by New Yorkers each year and turn it into bio gas, in hopes of reducing the amount of food in landfills and helping the city lower its electricity bill.