No time to waste: using data to drive down food waste

Asha Bajaj
4 min readOct 3, 2020

Approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted — around 1.3 billion tonnes every year. This amounts to roughly US$680 billion in developed countries and US$310 billion in developing countries, with a carbon footprint of about 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to 8 percent of global greenhouse emissions.

Louis Hansel/Image credit: Pixaby

Cutting food waste is one of the most effective ways to reduce climate impact.

However, lack of data has been pointed to as a major cause of inaction.

“Everybody thinks they don’t waste food,” says Clementine O’Connor, Sustainable Food Systems Programme Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Food waste data helps governments understand the scale of the problem at home, and make the case for action.” Data also helps countries and companies identify hotspots in the supply chain, evaluate the efficacy of policy measures, estimate the potential for material recovery, and track progress towards 2030.

How food waste data can support effective planning

Existing global estimates rely on extrapolation of data from a small number of countries, often using old data. A better measurement may show that action on food waste prevention could benefit developing countries as well as developed ones. For example, a 2015 study in Ghana shows household food waste generation at 80–86kg per capita across regions, comparable with rates in New Zealand. Making up an average of 48 percent of all municipal solid waste and 79 percent of all organic waste in Ghana, food waste data can also reveal opportunities to reduce the burden on waste management systems through interventions to both prevent food waste and make better use of it through circular systems.

In Chittagong, Bangladesh, household waste data shows that vegetable/food waste represents 62 percent of all household solid waste. One study outlines how this can be “converted from burden to resource” through segregation at the source.

UNEP together with expert partner WRAP will publish new global food waste estimates as part of the Food Waste Index report in early 2021.

UNEP supports countries in setting food waste baselines, developing national food waste strategies, and identifying scalable solutions to transition to healthier, more sustainable food systems.

Cutting food waste is one of the most effective ways that we as individuals, and our governments, can reduce our climate impact.

SDG 12.3 measures food loss and food waste with separate indicators:

  • The Food Loss Index (FLI) measures losses for key commodities in a country across the supply chain, up to but not including retail. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is its custodian.
  • The Food Waste Index measures food waste at retail and consumer level (households and out of home consumption). UNEP is its custodian. In contrast to the FLI, it measures total food waste (rather than loss or waste associated with specific commodities).

Together, the two indices help countries track progress on food loss and waste reduction across the supply chain, from production to consumption. New initiatives will help to disseminate these tools through regional working groups and pilot programs at the country and city level.

GO4SDGs: regional solutions for more sustainable food systems

The Global Opportunities for Sustainable Development Goals (GO4SDGs) initiative, launched last year by UNEP together with strategic partners, will address the lack of food waste data in the Global South, by providing capacity building on the Food Waste Index methodology, enabling coherent measurement and comparable data across countries, and facilitating regional collaboration on measurement issues, strategy development, and food waste action.

“The GO4SDGs project is designed to strengthen capacities and cooperation to deliver on the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement by helping countries, businesses and individuals chart pathways to more sustainable policies, practices, and lifestyles,” says Adriana Zacarias Farah, UNEP’s Head and Global Coordinator of GO4SDGs. “Under the GO4SDGs initiative, regional working groups on food waste measurement will be set up in five regions to support countries in measuring their baselines. This is an essential element in developing national food waste strategies and making progress on halving food waste by 2030.”

The GO4SDGs’ Menu of Services offers a range of tools to reduce food waste and promote healthy diets, as well as to support the development of policies on climate change and food security. These include guidelines for prevention and reduction of food waste in key sectors, including restaurants and tourism, practical ways for individuals to reduce food waste, including through the #AnatomyofAction, and a range of training and capacity development opportunities on food systems transformation, organic food production and export, and more.

Originally published by the UNEP



Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women