Far too much food that is produced for human consumption goes to waste. But is it true that globally one-third of our food never gets eaten? While every country is facing their own battles against food waste, the scale of the problem varies from country to country. Who are the biggest food waste countries in the world?
Food losses along the food supply chain vary considerably from one region to the next. In developing countries, for instance, it tends to occur at the early stages of the food supply chain. This is often because of limitations in harvesting techniques, storage and transport infrastructure.
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In Australia and New Zealand 5-6% of all food is lost along the supply chain.
In Central and Southern Asia, that figure shoots up to 20-21%.
In Europe and North America food loss adds up to around 16%.
Such differences indicate that food loss needs to be tackled predominately on a country and regional level. The solutions will vary and will also depend heavily on the local conditions, the produce, transport infrastructure and consumer behavior. Many innovative ideas to eliminate food and agricultural waste have already been turned into practical solutions. The best ones confirm that it’s not sufficient to focus only on global averages. However, best practice always includes robust measures to ensure food safety throughout the supply chain.
Retailers and consumers continue to throw away perfectly edible food. This is especially true for industrialized countries. However, the complexity of food waste prevents a clear and direct comparison between consumers in different countries. Unfortunately, food waste is measured and presented in different ways in different countries. Nevertheless, there are some interesting food waste statistics that are important to highlight.
Consumers collectively throw away more than all the retailers together in the US. In total,private US households waste around 43% of all food. According to Save the Food," a national public service campaign, this could translate into an annual financial loss of $1,500 for a family of four. In fact, over 40 million tons (36 million tonnes) of food ends up in landfills every year, worth more than $161 billion (€135 bn.).
Due to a lack of consistent data for all EU member states, calculating figures for Europe by country is tricky. The most recent comprehensive estimates of European food waste levels come from the EU FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies) project. It reveals that over 50% of edible and inedible food waste in the EU comes from private households. It amounts to 47 million tonnes of waste, at a cost of €98 billion each year.
Household food waste in the UK represents 70% of all edible food waste, according to WRAP, a British charity. UK households still waste 4.5 million tonnes of food a year that could have been eaten, worth £14 billion (€11.7 bn.).
The government estimates that Australia wastes a total of 7.3 million tonnes of food each year, which costs the economy an estimated A$20 billion (€12.4 bn.) annually.
Chinese consumers in the country’s biggest cities wasted 17 to 18 million tonnes of food in 2015, which is enough to feed 30 to 50 million people in China for a year, writes the People’s Daily Online.
We now have only ten years to meet SDG Target 12.3 to cut food loss and waste in half. On the whole, apart from a few outliers, progress has generally been too slow. Of all the countries that have introduced measures, which countries are showing positive results?
As well as taking pride in its reputation as a gourmet nation, France can also be proud of its record in curbing food waste. The country has repeatedly earned the top spot in the Food Sustainability Index. This regular survey ranks over 60 countries according to their food waste, sustainable agriculture practices and record on health and nutrition. According to the latest survey, consumers in France waste 67.2 kg of food per person per year, compared to 95.1 kg in the US, 87.1 kg in Belgium and 78.2 kg in Canada.
Although the figures for the UK are still high, the country has made headway. In fact, the UK is the first country to get more than halfway toward meeting the SDG Target 12.3 of halving food waste by 2030. An achievement which gained it an honorary mention in the Champions 12.3 Food Loss and Waste: 2020 Progress Report. Between 2007 and 2018, the UK reduced its national levels by 27%. Key to the UK’s success has been the commitment of supermarkets and the food industry. While consumer education programs, including Love Food, Hate Waste, have also played a role.
Back in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published an insightful but damning report titled Global Food Losses and Food Waste. At the time, the FAO study estimated that around one-third of the world’s food was squandered every year. This added up to a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes of wasted food annually and to a cost of almost one trillion US dollars. The report subsequently viewed reducing food waste as a priority.
Most significantly, the FAO report played a key role in raising awareness of the problem. As a result, in 2015, the UN included a food loss and waste reduction target as one of the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This SDG Target 12.3 calls on the world to halve per capita food waste by 2030. In addition, Champions 12.3, an international coalition that includes 30 senior leaders from governments, businesses and research institutions, seeks to motivate the global community to do more to tackle the problem.
And yet, today, almost five years on, that ambitious goal to cut food waste by half is still looking elusive in every region around the globe. Considering the food waste statistics by country, it’s clear that today’s global figures are still too high.
While the FAO global figures from 2011 continue to be cited in many news reports and follow-up studies, the FAO has always made clear that these numbers represent only a broad estimate of the scale of the problem. Calculating food waste per capita by country is a more complex process.
One way to look at the issue is through the lens of how much food is wasted, per capita, by country, as well as where in the supply chain that it occurs for various regions. Such a perspective can help us better understand the causes of food waste. In addition, it can better inform our efforts to ensure that more of the harvest finds its way to the table. But it’s no easy ask.
The complexity and gravity of this task has led the FAO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to team up in an attempt to calculate more precise estimates. To give a clearer insight into the overall problem, they differentiate between "food loss" and "food waste." Consequently, there is a separate index for each.
The Food Loss Index looks at what is lost during production or in the food supply chain before food reaches the retailers.
The Food Waste Index focuses on the food that is thrown away at the end of the supply chain by retailers and consumers.
While the Food Waste Index is still a work in progress, the first Food Loss Index is included in the latest FAO annual report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2019.
Initial estimates indicate that, on average, around 14% of the world’s food is lost between harvest and retail. In general, more fruit and vegetables are lost along the global supply chain than any other food item. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their perishable nature.
Just as the reasons why we squander food are complex, so too are the solutions. Environmental targets can serve as a general framework to support collective action towards halving food waste by 2030, including the SDG Target 12.3. However, success will depend on a holistic, multifaceted approach, as well as government initiatives.
Recent examples include the EU Farm to Fork Strategy from May 2020 and Australia’s National Food Waste Strategy. Both have the goal of halving food waste by 2030. Mainly, these programs will provide support, advice and financial instruments to ease the transition to more sustainable food systems.
France, in contrast, has taken a much stricter line. It introduced legislation in 2016 that required supermarkets to redistribute edible food to food banks and charities. Management that break the law risk a two-year prison sentence and substantial fines. Perhaps a sign that simply trying to nudge consumers and companies in the right direction is not sufficient to bring about the necessary changes.
Avoiding food waste efficiently along the supply chain and in all our households can result in a win-win scenario. Halving food waste could help meet the demand for nutrition of our growing population. And equally minimize the negative environmental effects of agriculture.
It saves lives, reduces costs and helps protect the planet for future generations.
Putting waste avoidance at the top of our priorities means having to deal less with food disposal at the end. Landfills of food waste are a major source of methane gas, which also contributes to climate change.
Key elements of any robust solution will involve more sustainable packaging to ensure food safety along the supply chain. Particularly during transportation, the use of reusable packaging containers (RPCs) could further reduce food loss and waste. Above all, a clear understanding and commitment to the circular economy will be critical for success for the sake of the environment.