As much as a third of all food produced globally is wasted or squandered before it reaches the plate. To put it in practical terms, that is 1.3 billion tons (or 990 billion dollars' worth) of food in the bin every single year.
The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition released a report made in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) detailing the breathtaking scale of the problem last week.
The loss is seen in all stages of the supply chain, from the crop fields to the dining room table, and can be accidental or intentional. Take a banana that falls off a truck. That would be considered accidental and is categorized as food loss. A bunch of bananas removed from the supermarket shelves because they are too brown and spotted, however, would be described as intentional food waste.
The biggest casualties are seen in fruit, veg, and roots and tubers, where a staggering 40 to 50 percent of food is discarded every year. Add to that wastage 30 percent of cereals produced, 35 percent of all seafood, 20 percent of annual dairy supplies, and 25 percent of all meat.
The report reveals that levels of food waste between industrialized and developing countries are roughly on par, with the former losing some 670 million tonnes and the latter losing some 630 million tonnes. But the point of food loss is different. Wastage in medium and high-income countries tends to take place later in the supply chain, whereas wastage in low-income countries most often occurs earlier on in the chain and tends to be related to financial, managerial, and technical problems during the harvesting, storing, and cooling processes.
As this wastage goes on, almost 1 billion people are going hungry and one in five deaths globally can be linked to poor diet and nutrient deficiencies. What's more, if nothing is done to improve things, food shortages will only get worse in the future. In fact, a recent study suggests we are currently underestimating the problem – in the coming decades, we won't just have more people to feed but those people will get bigger and need more calories.
The Panel points out that it is not just the wastage of the food itself we have to think of but the resources used to produce it (including water, energy, and land) and the toll it takes on the environment (think deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions). The loss of meat alone accounts for an additional 75 million cows, they say.
So, what can be done about it? The Panel is calling on policymakers to take action and implement policies that allow people across the globe to eat food containing all nutrients necessary to be healthy. They say this may mean increasing and diversifying food production but it also means prioritizing the reduction of food waste.
Others are taking things into their own hands – whether that's devoting entire stores to food that is either expired or "ugly" or transforming food waste into electrical energy.