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Almost a fifth of food sold to consumers ends up in the bin, says UNEP

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A new report looks into the food that went into the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants and other food services in 2019 and offers a methodology for countries to track their food waste.

Around 931 million tonnes of food produced for consumers were discarded in 2019, significantly surpassing previous estimates, according to new research by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and WRAP, a UK-based NGO focused on the sustainable use of natural resources.

This is equivalent to 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks, enough to circle the planet seven times bumper-to-bumper.

The report, which collected data from 54 countries, showed households are the top source of food waste, discarding 11 per cent of all food for consumption. Food services come in second with five per cent and retail outlets come in third with two per cent.

The report’s findings show that in every country analysed food waste is substantial, regardless of income-level. “For a long time, it was assumed that food waste in the home was a significant problem only in developed countries,” said Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP. “With the publication of the Food Waste Index report, we see that things are not so clear cut.”

Food waste can happen in many ways. Retailers and restaurants often throw out fresh produce that does not fit  the quality criteria or for not looking as consumers expect them to. Food that is near or beyond the “best-before” date is also often thrown out even though it is still good to eat.

At the same time, 690 million people went hungry in 2019 and the pandemic has only worsened the situation.

One of the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to cut global food waste in half by 2030. Food waste and food loss - the food that is lost at some stage of the supply chain - represents eight to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Reducing food waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions, slow the destruction of nature through land conversion and pollution, enhance the availability of food and thus reduce hunger and save money at a time of global recession,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. 

“If we want to get serious about tackling climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, businesses, governments and citizens around the world have to do their part to reduce food waste. The UN Food Systems Summit this year will provide an opportunity to launch bold new actions to tackle food waste globally.”

Read also: Human rights overshadowed by big business in UN food summit, says UN expert

The report also found that a growing number of countries are measuring their food waste at some level, with 14 of them fitting the Food Waste Index standards. The methodology it proposes is designed to help countries understand the scale and source of the food waste problem they have to deal with and come up with better solutions.

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