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Food waste could circle Earth sevenfold

While one-in-10 people on the planet suffers chronic hunger, the world wastes about 17% of all the food that is produced each year, UNEP reported.

Gulls flock on a garbage truck in Dorset, U.K., collecting food waste to convert to biogas and fertilizer
Gulls flock on a garbage truck in Dorset, U.K., collecting food waste to convert to biogas and fertilizer (AN/Andrew Bone)

Chronic hunger afflicts almost one-in-10 people on the planet yet 17% of the food produced worldwide each year is wasted, according to a U.N. Environment Program report on Thursday.

Most of the waste, slightly more than 1 billion tons, is routinely thrown into the garbage by households, restaurants and other food services, and retail stores. Households account for 61% of that waste, UNEP found, while food service providers and retailers were responsible for 26% and 13%, respectively.

That is enough to fill 23 million 40-ton tractor-trailers, UNEP said. And if the trucks were parked bumper to bumper, it said, they would circle the Earth seven times. The figures come from UNEP's Food Waste Index Report 2021, based on 2019 figures from 54 nations.

Meanwhile, 690 million people were affected by hunger in 2019, the World Food Program reported in July, but "another 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by COVID-19."

That setback "throws into further doubt," WFP noted, whether the world can eliminate hunger within a decade as part of the U.N.'s 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Climate and pollution

About one-tenth of all carbon emissions that contribute to global warming come from wasted or lost food, according to a 2019 report from the U.N.'s Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The impact is much higher when food production, including processing and packaging, are taken into account.

“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,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said.

“If we want to get serious about tackling climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste," she said in a statement, "businesses, governments and citizens around the world have to do their part to reduce food waste."

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres plans to take on the issue of food waste at a "Food Systems Summit" to be hosted by the world body later this year.

Food waste appears to be substantial in almost every nation where it is measured regardless of whether they are rich or poor, said the UNEP report, which was prepared with help from WRAP, a U.K.-based charity.

Each person wastes about 121 kilos of food on average — twice the average person's weight and equivalent to about 1,200 blueberry muffins or 800 bananas.

“For a long time, it was assumed that food waste in the home was a significant problem only in developed countries,” said WRAP's CEO Marcus Gover. “With the publication of the Food Waste Index report, we see that things are not so clear cut."