If Wasted Food Were a Country…


September 2013

…it would be the world’s third-largest producer of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States. This finding was published in September 2013 in a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) entitled “The Food Wastage Footprint.”

Piles of wasted food
Piles of wasted food

As one might expect, the reasons underlying food waste are very different in developed vs. developing countries: millions of consumers in the industrialized world buy more than they can eat and frequently discard leftovers. This means wasting not just the food, but also the energy, natural resources and chemicals required for its production, storage, transportation, marketing, and disposal.

On the other hand, farming and harvesting methods in developing countries continue to be inefficient, and facilities to safely store, transport and distribute food are often lacking.

The sheer numbers of wasted food are staggering: around 1.3 billion tons per year worldwide, equivalent to about a third of all food produced for human consumption. In contrast, an estimated 870 million people on our planet go hungry every day.

The cost of this waste, assuming producer prices and excluding fish and seafood, was estimated as $750 billion per year, and its annual carbon dioxide footprint as 3.3 billion tons. Uneaten food rotting in landfills is also a large producer of methane, which is a particularly harmful greenhouse gas.

According to the FAO report, there is an almost even distribution of “upstream” and “downstream” wastage: 54% occur during production, post-harvest handling and storage, while the other 46% occur at the processing, distribution and consumption stages.

The report identifies several wastage “hot spots”, such as Asia for rice, and high-income Western countries for meat. Much of the world’s wasted water can be attributed to fruit and vegetable production in Asia, Latin America and Europe.

Suggestions to remedy this dire situation were provided in a “toolkit” also published by the FAO as three general categories of required action. First, behavioral change in consumers at the household as well as retail level toward favoring smaller food portions and increasing the use of leftovers.

Second, re-use of the majority of food surplus within the human food chain via donations to charities, the next best option being a diversion to livestock feed.

Third, recovery of energy and nutrients from food waste via recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion, and incineration methods.

The production of the report and toolkit were funded by the government of Germany. More details can be found here and a short summary movie is available here.


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