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Food losses and waste – a global environmental problem

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About a third of the world’s food is thrown away. This leaves significant negative consequences for the economy and ecology.

One of the most important issues for the sustainable future of the planet is how to provide a sufficient amount of food for the growing population, without endangering the economic, social and ecological balance. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow by a third, and food needs will double. In light of this challenge, potential solutions are offered, among which one very interesting one stands out – reduction of food losses and waste.

What are food losses and waste and what is their significance?

Food Loss and Waste (FLW) refers to edible parts of plants and animals that are produced for human consumption and that are ultimately not utilized in the diet. Food loss is food that spoils, i.e. food whose quality is significantly reduced due to the action of various factors and which ultimately does not reach the final consumer. Losses most often occur in production (e.g. outdated agro-technical measures), storage process (e.g. insufficient equipment with refrigerators), processing and distribution channels. Due to underdeveloped technology and poor infrastructure, food losses are typical for less developed countries.

Food Waste, on the other hand, is food that meets quality and is edible but is thrown away consciously. This type of waste is typical at higher levels of the supply chain – in markets and at end consumers, and is typical for developed countries. The most common causes of waste are inadequate procurement, as well as consumer confusion about how to display food use deadlines.

Food losses and waste (GOH) are one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) about one third of the total amount of food produced is lost or discarded. If we look at energy, this loss represents 24% of all calories produced, i.e. almost every fourth calorie produced is not used in human nutrition. These losses result in negative economic and environmental consequences. Economically, food waste represents a loss of income for farmers and other actors in the supply chain. Additionally, it increases the cost for the customer. Ecologically speaking, the energy used for the production of discarded food results in the emission of harmful gases that cause the greenhouse effect, which further results in endangering the ecosystem. Also, every loss represents inefficient use of (natural) resources.

Economic and environmental consequences

The cost of GOH is enormous. The average American family of four is estimated to lose $ 1,600 a year on discarded food, while for the average British family these losses are estimated at 680 pounds a year. In China, $ 32 billion worth of food is thrown away every year.

In terms of the impact on climate change, GOHs are “to blame” for the emission of 4.4 GT (gigatons) of greenhouse gases per year. If GOH were viewed as a country, they would be the third emitters of harmful gases, right behind China and America, and ahead of India and Russia. We can see this in the graph below. The area needed to produce this amount of food that is lost or thrown away is the size of Mexico (198 million hectares).

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wri-indonesia.org/en/blog/3-steps-tackling-food-loss-and-waste

Emissions of harmful gases caused by GOH come from various sources. These are primarily emissions of gases from agricultural production (cattle digestive system, manure, use of energy and artificial fertilizers on farms, etc.), then from the production of energy used for processing primary products and production of food that is finally thrown away or not used. Also, emissions come from transport, storage, and food preparation. Finally, the harmful effects of GOH are reflected through emissions from landfills where food is dumped, as well as indirectly through deforestation and land use for food production.

Potential solutions

In order to solve this problem, it is necessary to take systemic measures. Some of these measures do not have to require large investments. Some of the most important measures are:

  • Investments in technology and infrastructure in the entire supply chain – the use of modern agro-technical measures, ways of storing primary products in silos and cold stores, adequate transport and distribution of food would significantly reduce losses. These investments are especially significant in less developed countries.
  • Unification of food shelf life labeling – there are currently several types of food shelf life labeling (e.g. “best use by…”, “use by…”, etc.) that confuse consumers and force them to throw away completely safe food.
  • Adequate planning of procurement of markets and end consumers
  • Establishment of the so-called food banks for better distribution of unused food
  • Campaigns and raising public awareness about this challenge
  • Defining national targets for food waste reduction
  • Use the inevitable waste as biomass for the production of electricity and heat.

As already mentioned, by 2050, twice as much food will be needed to feed 9 billion people. Reducing food losses and waste by half would also reduce the need for future food production by 22%.

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