Food waste is alone responsible for an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions globally, equal to the amount from tourism. Cutting it back not only helps mitigate climate change but leads to a host of additional beneficial outcomes – increased food security, resource conservation, better social outcomes, cost savings and the creation of more jobs and, importantly, we know how to do it. Denmark, for example, was able to cut its food waste by 25% between 2010 and 2015, while the UK managed a 21% reduction, also in a five year period between 2007 and 2012.

Around the world, from China to Hungary and Canada to Kenya, people are working together to reduce food waste in a variety of creative ways, each reflecting their cultures, challenges and resources. A new awareness of the need to reduce food waste has come partly as a result of increasingly available and robust data. Food security concerns, increases in food prices and negative environmental impacts are contributing to the urgency of addressing the estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost or wasted every year.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) produced two measures to assess loss and waste during production, and during retail and consumption.  It’s The State of Food & Agriculture report 2019 found that tackling waste concerning consumption was one of the most effective ways in the food chain to reduce carbon emissions.

Changes in technology and behaviour have allowed a transition in the treatment of food with the result of reducing waste in production, transport and consumption patterns. Initiatives are varied. There are major government programmes such as the EUs Saving Food project, scores of community groups, such as Not Far From the Tree, harvesting unwanted garden fruit, to individual efforts like Elliot in San Francisco, who ranked his fridge contents from most to least perishable and decreased his weekly food bills by US$25 by simply eating his food before he let it rot, and by eating less processed food he reported becoming healthier too.

As diverse as the organisations that have sprung up in response to the challenge, are the approaches and targets. Collecting discarded produce from supermarkets, like the Real Junk Food project in Brighton, England, and factories and farmers markets or (in a modern form of the ancient practice of gleaning) from farmers direct, has become not only acceptable but laudable. Finland’s Green to Scale initiative in Vantaa is one example.  Gathering nuts, fruits or other produce that are no longer profitable to harvest or are a surplus nuisance to homeowners are an important source of food-bank donations and often the basis for interesting social enterprises.  Both companies and city administrations are increasingly looking to their operations teams to reduce waste.

In developing countries such as Kenya where a different lens is applied, thousands of farmers are benefitting from significant increases in fruit harvest volumes through new techniques which reduce post-harvest waste.

Wider relevance

There is an abundance of food on our Earth and yet people still go hungry across the world. While the FAO estimates that approximately one third of food produced for human consumption is wasted globally  one in nine people remain undernourished. This is not to mention the energy, emissions and resources consumed in the production and distribution of this wasted food.  According to ReFED, a US-based not-for-profit, multi-stakeholder food waste reduction initiative food wasted consumes 21% of all fresh water, 19% of all fertilizers, 18% of cropland and 21% of landfill volume. In addition, food loss and waste is responsible for an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions: ‘if it were a country, food loss and waste would be the third largest emitter after China and the United States’.

Where along the supply chain this food is wasted, differs greatly. In North America, 58% of food wastage occurs at consumption against only 6% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reverse applies during storage and handling with only 6% waste in North America and 36% in Sub–Saharan Africa, where post-harvest grain losses amount to $4billion per year and can be as high as 50%.

In addition:

  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the world produces enough food waste to feed 2 billion people each year.
  • 12,000 gallons of water are required for each pound of beef produced and one third of meat products in the US are wasted.
  • Food waste is an issue that matters to people even in relatively wealthy countries, a 2017 survey found that 77% of its UK respondents were concerned about food waste

Context and background

Following dramatic increases in crop yields after the Second World War, little thought was afforded to food waste in Western countries. Policy lent in the direction of food safety, such as use-by dates, often leading to waste. This has been compounded by supermarkets’ use of “best before” dates, which although partly linked to food safety, encourage people to discard products and purchase replacements unnecessarily.  Chemical use and mechanisation contributed to over-production in the US and ‘milk lakes’ and ‘butter mountains’, were common in Europe in the 70s as a result of incentives to maximise production.  Citizens seemed suddenly desensitized to the importance of respecting and conserving food. Across consumer markets an ethos of disposability took hold.  Things didn’t begin to change until the early 2000s, when the UN and other institutions started to launch a number of initiatives, such as Save Food and the World Resources Institute’s Food Loss and Waste Protocol. A huge amount of community level activism contributed to the change, pushing for better use and redistribution of food to create improved social outcomes. In recent years, the return of Foodbanks in Western countries to support those in food poverty by giving them food donated often by the public has highlighted the issue from another direction.

Enabling factors

Technology has been very useful in bringing people together to tackle food waste. In the more obvious formats of, for example, the extraordinary world map, Falling Fruit which lists publicly available fruit, nuts and other produce, and tips to foragers on the location of hidden gems, or the Squamish First Nation which uses its Facebook page to help share local food, online technology is enabling food waste reduction. There is also the Olio app, which allows users to share their food with others and offers the unexpected benefit of bringing locals together. The Too Good To Go app lets users purchase unsold food from top eateries at discounted prices at the end of the workday.

Technology is also being used to disseminate information to educate farmers on waste reduction. TechnoServe and the Rockefeller Initiative work together to circulate information on more efficient harvesting practices, or the use of less chemical-focussed methods of combating pests, or better grain storage, in countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya.And, in many less obvious ways, technology also underlines many other initiatives.

Community groups like Not Far From the Tree, the Toronto based charity, has picked over 171,000 lbs of unwanted garden fruit since its inception in 2008 (an average pear tree produces 100lbs of fruit p/a). The American charity, Food Forward, split the harvest between tree owners, pickers and social service agencies.  These grass roots initiatives, offering both food security and social benefits, are frequently driven by passionate individuals who can now connect with others using technology, to gather data and organise volunteers and homeowners for picks on a large scale. Food Forward also recovers food from farmers’ markets and the Los Angeles whole produce market, and 84 million lbs of produce has been delivered to 1,800 agencies across Southern California – something that would be hard to coordinate quickly without today’s technology. RecycLA, the City of Los Angeles’ waste collection and food scrap drop off program has prevented nearly 5 million pounds of fresh produce joining the one million tonnes of food that already goes into LA’s landfills every year.

In London, the Kensal to Kilburn Fruit Harvesters pick from back gardens, passing the produce to schools and community groups. Abundance London harvests trees and transforms urban dumping grounds into gardens creating beauty and biodiversity and Barcelona-based Espigoladors sends volunteers into the farmer’s fields of Catalonia to pick unsightly rejects.  In this way 706 tonnes of food and 432 million litres of water have been saved, although approximately 267,000 tonnes of food is still lost in Catalonia each year.

These organisations offer a new way of sourcing food, and is a reminder, especially in western societies, that supermarkets are not the only sources of food. As robust data documenting these and other successes becomes more available, it is an important element in paving the way for broader behaviour change.

Scope and Evidence

This story of change demonstrates that multiple social, climate and broader environmental benefits accrue from reducing food loss and waste, and that effective strategies to do so are well known all along the food chain. Unsurprisingly, there are also significant economic gains to be made. In a report by Champions 12.3 (the name is a reference to the Sustainable Development Goals), entitled ‘The business case for reducing food loss and waste’  1,200 business sites across 17 countries (including Australia, Indonesia, Ireland, Netherlands, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ireland and Italy) and more than 700 companies representing a range of sectors, were analysed.

  • 99% of the sites earned a positive return on investment (ROI) in waste reduction initiatives
  • Half of the business sites earned greater than a 14-fold financial ROI

Following the 2007 nationwide UK initiative to reduce household food waste

  • a 21% reduction in food waste relative to 2007 levels was achieved by 2012
  • every pound invested in efforts to reduce food waste resulted in astonishing savings of £250

In the same way that encouraging eating ‘knobbly’ fruit has resulted in a new found pride rather than apprehension of using discarded produce, it is hoped that astonishing financial results like these will challenge business and government leader’s perceptions that costs outweigh benefits or that waste is inevitable or too hard to measure and rapidly reduce.


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Greater Barcelona launches plan to combat food waste.

How to cut food waste in half — and fight climate change too.

How we eliminated food waste and saved $1,365 a year

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The business case for reducing food loss and waste.