FAO Liaison Office in New York
reviewed & published
UNEP Symposium: The Global Environmental Impact of Food Waste
Sharon Brennen-Haylock, LON Director: September 19, 2013, Grand Hyatt hotel, NYC



From left: UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, US Department of Agriculture’s Elise Golan, UN Special Representative Davd Nabarro, FAO-UN Liaison Director Sharon Brennen-Haylock.




Thank you Nick, it is a privilege to be here. Let me commend in  particular UNEP and all the other partners who have made this morning’s Symposium possible.


Colleagues and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen, I will be brief, since a lot of useful information has been shared already by the other speakers.


The world has made great strides in cutting hunger. The world’s share of undernourished people dropped from 23.2% in 1990-1992, to 14.9% in 2010-2012, and the MDG 1 target of having the percentage of hungry people by 2015 is within reach.


Notwithstanding, over 800 million people continue to live their lives chronically undernourished. The demand for food, meanwhile, will only continue to grow in coming years as the global population rises to 9 billion by 2050, up from over 7 billion today.


All this suggests that if we are to achieve our anti-hunger goals, we must not only keep our foot on the accelerator, but double-down on our efforts.


New FAO study


An important aspect in helping us to reach our goals would be to accelerate efforts to reduce food waste.  For our purposes, the phrase “food wastage” refers to the sum of food loss and food waste. It is important to differentiate between food lost due to inadequate harvest practices, storage and transportation from food that is wasted due to consumption habits and practices.


In this context, I draw your attention to FAO’s groundbreaking new Food Wastage Footprint study (released September 11).  This study builds on previous work that FAO has done on the subject. Two years ago FAO presented a document on food waste and loss. That report helped place food loss and waste in the global food debate by showing that about one-third of all food produced gets lost or wasted – some 1.3 billon tons. And that, every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.



The implication of this massive food wastage for food security and for sustainability is huge. If we reduce loss and waste we have more food available without the need to produce more and thereby put less pressure on our natural resources.  The current study, the first- global analysis of its kind, quantifies the impact of food waste on 4 key environmental indicators (water, land, carbon, and biodiversity), for 7 world regions, and 8 major food commodity groups.


Though my colleagues in our Rome headquarters who produced the study are best equipped to discuss the technical methodology behind the study’s calculations, let me briefly share some of the main findings.


The study estimates that the global volume of food wastage in 2007 amounted to 1.6 billion tons, out of a total 6 billion tons produced. (If only the edible parts of food are calculated, both numbers are, admittedly, revised down slightly.)


Where does wastage occur? At 33% of the total, agricultural production itself accounts for the lion’s share.


Yet overall, the study finds, wastage across the supply chain is fairly balanced between “upstream” wastage (accounting for 54% of the total and including production, post-harvest handling, and storage) and “downstream” wastage (which accounts for 46% of total waste and includes processing, distribution, and consumption).


From this global view, several further trends emerge.


The first is that food wastage during agricultural production is fairly consistent between regions, hovering, as previously mentioned, around 33% of the total. The big divergence, instead, occurs after this initial phase.


Simply stated, developing countries struggle to get the bulk of their food crop to customers. Inadequate harvesting techniques, and limited storage and transport infrastructure ― as well as problematic infrastructure and climate conditions ― all play a part.


In contrast, the bigger challenge in middle and high-income countries lies not in getting the food to retailers and consumers, but rather in how the latter choose to use the food. Thus, in such places, food wastage at the consumption stage can climb to around 40% of the total. (For low-income regions, the figure can dip as low as 4%.)


Food wastage in rich countries, then, is often spurred by insufficient “purchase planning” (i.e. buying more perishable food than you can eat), exaggerated concern over “best-before” dates (i.e. needlessly throwing out food), and, further up the supply chain, excessive quality standards on things like size and aesthetics (leaving, say, a perfectly edible tomato to rot in the fields because it is deemed insufficiently round or red).


Environmental footprints


Yet where FAO’s new study shines brightest, I would argue, is in its detailed analysis ― by region and by commodity group ― of the environmental footprint left behind by food wastage. Citing just a few numbers from each of the 4 areas studied (water, land, carbon, biodiversity) is, I believe, sufficient to grasp the scale of the problem.


Begin with water. In 2007, the global blue water footprint alone ― which accounts strictly for ground and surface water consumed for irrigation ― amounted to some 250 cubic kilometres, equivalent to nearly three times the volume of Switzerland’s mighty Lake Geneva.


Next, consider global food wastage’s land use footprint: equal to 1.4 billion hectares [pronounced: hek-tairs] in 2007. To put that figure in perspective, if the land surface occupied by food produced but not consumed were a country, it would be second only to Russia in total surface area occupied.


The global carbon footprint from food wastage, meanwhile, is no less jaw-dropping, amounting to some 3.3 billion tons of CO2. Only two nations (China and the US) emit more.


As for food wastage’s impact on biodiversity, agriculture ― and the clearing of natural habitats which accompanies it ― is estimated to be responsible for some 66% of current threats to vulnerable species.


Let’s not forget the global economic costs of food wastage either ― no trivial sum ― totaling around $750 billion annually, a figure comparable to Turkey’s GDP.


Other findings


Ladies and Gentlemen, these are some of the snap-shot global environmental and financial costs of food wastage. Nevertheless, I should note that the study goes into terrific depth at the regional level and beyond, focusing on various waste “hot spots”. Let me briefly share a few additional examples.


Wastage of cereals in Asia, the study notes, is of particular cause for concern, with major impact on carbon emissions, water, and land use. Rice is among the worst offenders.


Global meat wastage, on the other hand, is comparatively low, but nonetheless generates a disproportionately high land and carbon footprint. Meat wastage is also narrowly concentrated, with wealthy nations responsible for two-thirds of the global total.


Fruit wastage and water waste, meanwhile, march dangerously hand-in-hand, with the worst hot spots to be found in Latin America and industrialized Asia.


The case of vegetable wastage is similarly illuminating, with carbon waste hotspots emerging in south and south-east Asia and Europe, respectively. Dig deeper here and a still more complex picture emerges. Europe’s carbon intensity of vegetable wastage, for instance, is higher due to a preference for growing vegetables in heated greenhouses.


Importantly, the study also notes that all food wastage is “not created equal”, with the net environmental damage inflicted varying at different stages of the production chain. In general, the further “downstream” in the process wastage occurs, the greater the environmental cost, with increasing resource inputs required at successive stages.


Such anecdotes, I hope, also offer insight into the sheer complexity of the calculations involved.


Policy recommendations


Finally, I would also like to draw your attention to FAO’s new companion “Toolkit” guide, which offers extensive suggestions on ways to cut food wastage. Recommendations for policymakers include:


Bolstering private and public sector investment to improve food harvesting, storage, processing, transport, and retailing processes.


Encouraging new technologies, such as the strengthened rice-storage bags used in the Philippines which have cut losses there by 15%,  or, say, the use of solar dryers in West Africa, which have greatly extended the shelf life of fruit and tubers.


Training farmers in best practices and facilitating the creation of farmers’ cooperatives and professional associations.


Raising awareness of the problem among retailers and consumers.


Relaxing overly-strict regulations on appearance and sell-by dates.


And where food wastage can not be prevented or reduced, the Toolkit also argues that governments should do more to encourage both re-use and recycling ― such as by granting food bank donors greater protection against lawsuits and introducing landfill taxes.


Ladies and Gentlemen, the global food waste challenge is not only enormous, it’s also multi-dimensional. By highlighting the tremendous environmental damage being inflicted, FAO hopes to further build support for meaningful reforms and behavioural changes.  Copies of both the Summary Report and Toolkit are available here in the room for you to take.


Thank you.

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