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More than one billion meals wasted per day in 2022, according to new UN report

CRISTINA PEDRAZZINI / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Global households are discarding an exorbitant amount of food every year, despite food insecurity remaining one of the top concerns in several regions around the world, according to a new report by the United Nationals Environment Programme.

Households across all continents wasted more than 1 billion meals per day in 2022, according to the UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report, released Wednesday. The annual cost of the food wasted is estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion and weigh in at 1.05 billion tonnes, according to the report.

Nearly one-fifth (19%) of the food available to consumers at the retail, food service and household level was wasted, according to the report.

Most of the world’s food waste comes from households, accounting for approximately 60% (631 million tonnes) of the total food waste in 2022. Food service and retail sectors accounted for around 28% and 12% respectively, the authors estimated.

An individual wastes, on average, approximately 79 kilograms — or about 174 pounds — of food annually, the report found.

The UNEP estimates that approximately 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to food waste and loss — almost five times the total emissions from the aviation sector, according to the report.

There is more food waste per capita in households that are located in typically hotter countries around the world, the report states. Factors such as extreme heat events and overall higher seasonal temperatures make it more challenging to store, process, transport, and sell food safely, often leading to a significant volume of food being wasted.

The report also highlights that there are food waste disparities between rural and urban populations. In middle-income countries, rural populations are generally wasting less compared to more urban areas.

The report recommends focusing efforts to strengthen circularity in cities and enhance food waste reduction programs.

Only four G20 countries — Australia, Japan, the U.K. the U.S. — and the European Union have food waste estimates suitable for tracking progress to 2030, according to the report.

An additional two G20 countries — Canada and Saudi Arabia — have suitable household estimates with Brazil’s estimate expected later this year. This is related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 to “end poverty, reduce inequality and build more peaceful, prosperous societies by 2030.”

Some countries, such as the U.K. and Japan, show that change on a national scale is possible. In Japan, total food waste has been reduced by 31% since 2008.

In the U.S., food is the single most common material sent to landfills, encompassing more than 24% of municipal solid waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Organic materials, including food waste, are responsible for 58% of fugitive methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills, the EPA estimates.

Fugitive methane emissions include all of the methane that is released into the atmosphere from various sources. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and is actually much more potent and effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide.

Methane is over 28 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the EPA. While methane only accounts for about 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is responsible for around 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, according to the International Energy Agency.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere reached record levels in 2022 and there is no end in sight to the rising trend, according to a 2023 report by the World Meteorological Organization.

Reducing methane emissions is seen as especially important because it is one of the most effective short-term ways to limit global warming. Unlike carbon dioxide, methane gas has a short lifespan in the atmosphere, decomposing in about a decade, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

A growing number of governments are embracing public-private partnerships to reduce food waste and its impacts on climate and the environment, according to the report, which suggests that governments, cities, municipalities and food businesses of all sizes should work together to reduce food waste and encourage households to take action.

But very few countries have collected robust food waste data, according to the UNEP, which calls on them to use the Food Waste Index to measure food waste in a consistent manner, track progress and develop national baselines. This enhanced data would help better understand the scale of the problem, target hotspots, and investigate the efficacy of possible interventions, according to the report.

“Food waste is a global tragedy. Millions will go hungry today as food is wasted across the world,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “Not only is this a major development issue, but the impacts of such unnecessary waste are causing substantial costs to the climate and nature. The good news is we know if countries prioritize this issue, they can significantly reverse food loss and waste, reduce climate impacts and economic losses, and accelerate progress on global goals.”

First published in 2021, this year’s Food Waste Index Report, co-authored with WRAP, a climate action nonprofit, provides the most accurate global estimate on food waste at retail and consumer levels. The report also provides guidance for countries on improving data collection and suggests best practices in moving from measuring to reducing food waste.

The 2024 report builds on recent and greater datasets and provides an update on the scale of food wasted worldwide.

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