The celebration of Earth Day marks an opportunity to reflect on the critical sustainability challenge of food waste, and how it varies among countries. No nation is immune, yet the problem manifests itself differently around the world.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is never eaten.
By category, this includes:
By reducing food loss and waste, we can not only address the need to feed the rapidly growing global population, but also to reduce the substantial environmental impact of growing food that presently is wasted. It has been said that if food waste was a country, it would be the one with the third largest carbon footprint.
There are a lot of ways to think about food waste. The issue is complex, and effective reduction efforts require a coordinated response involving effective policies and technologies. Stakeholder commitment and informed decision making are also critical to helping turn the tide.
One way to look at food waste 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 various causes of food waste. It can better inform our efforts to ensure that more of the harvest finds its way to the table.
According to the Food Sustainability Index 2017, the countries with the lowest food waste generation per capita include Greece and China (44 kg per year), followed by India (51 kg). The countries with the highest waste creation are Australia (361 kg), followed by the U.S. (278 kg). In case you were wondering, the UK registers 74.7 kg, while Canada generates 123 kg.
The causes of food waste in any particular country relate to local conditions. Overall, however, FAO has identified a pattern. In affluent countries, loss is greater in the downstream part of the food chain. In developing countries, conversely, food tends to be lost or wasted in the upstream part of the supply chain, in post harvest and in the early stages of the supply chain.
FAO posits that these differences are strongly related to variables such as infrastructure, consumer behaviors and quality standards. In low-income regions, loss is concentrated around limitations in harvest techniques, storage and transport infrastructure. On the other hand, high-income regions are characterized by higher loss rates downstream in the supply chain, especially at the consumer level. Waste in these regions results from restrictive quality and appearance standards in the supply chain, as well as by consumer behavior. Inadequate attention to purchase planning and excessive concern about "best-before dates" contribute to excessive household food waste.
Waste at the consumer level seems to be a luxury of affluent countries. While only 6-11 kg of food waste per-capita annually in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South/South-East Asia, they produce 95-115 kg in Europe and North America.