Africa: Humanity’s Penchant to Waste Food Is Trashing the Planet


The next time you pour expired milk down the drain or throw away wilted vegetables, consider how this waste could have been avoided. A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) finds the world is in the grip of an epidemic of food wastage. In 2019, consumers tossed away nearly a billion tonnes of food or 17 per cent of all the fare they bought.

That is deeply problematic in a world where 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19. It’s also bad for the planet. 8-10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that is ultimately thrown away.

UNEP recently sat down with two of the report’s authors – Clementine O’Connor, food systems expert with UNEP and Tom Quested, an analyst with the non-profit organization WRAP. They talked about what the world can do to end the scourge of food waste.

UNEP: What are the main findings of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report?

Tom Quested: A staggering 17 per cent of all available food for human consumption is wasted. If you can picture 23 million fully loaded 40-tonne trucks – bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth seven times – then that’s what we’re talking about. The report estimates that, in 2019, 61 per cent of food waste was generated by households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail.

UNEP: Why does food waste matter?

Clementine O’Connor: Even before COVID-19, some 690 million people in the world were undernourished. Three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. Uneaten food is a sheer waste of energy and resources that could be put to better use. Reducing food waste at the retail, food service and household levels can provide multi-faceted benefits for people and the planet. Up to now, the opportunities provided by food waste reductions have remained largely untapped and under-exploited.

UNEP: Is this a rich-world problem, or is it more widespread?

O’Connor: An important finding of the study is that household per capita food waste is broadly similar across country income groups (as defined by the World Bank), suggesting that action on food waste is equally relevant in high and middle-income countries. This breaks significantly with the narrative of the previous decade that household food waste is a rich country problem – and underlines the need for middle-income countries to measure baselines and develop national food waste prevention strategies. Providing technical support to help countries get started, UNEP is now launching Regional Food Waste Working Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, West Asia, and Asia-Pacific.

UNEP: What are the key data gaps?

Quested: Most governments around the world have not collected sufficiently robust data to make the case for action. Even fewer have the data to track trends in food waste over time. However, there have been a growing number of national estimates of food waste in recent years. Areas with higher data coverage include Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, North Africa, Central Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and the Caribbean have no available estimates. Data in the retail and food service sectors is also much more limited than for households. As measurement is an important early step to taking action on this important issue, much more measurement is needed.

UNEP: What’s the difference between food waste and food loss?

O’Connor: Food loss occurs along the food supply chain from harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. Food waste occurs at the retail, food service and consumption levels.

UNEP: How does food waste undermine sustainable development?

Quested: Food waste generates all the environmental impacts of food production (intensive use and pollution of land and water resources, exacerbation of biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions) without any of the benefits of feeding people. Food waste, therefore, undermines sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 12, Target 12.3, aims at halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030.

UNEP: Why should I reduce my food waste? How can I get started?

O’Connor: Reducing food waste at home is one of the easiest ways to reduce your personal climate impact. You eat – and make food decisions – at least three times a day. Some easy ways to get started:

Buy only as much as you need: check your fridge before you buy groceries (or add to your online shopping cart as you notice something is missing) to avoid impulse purchases. If you can, buy fresh food regularly and top-up when needed, rather than trying to get accurate quantities in one bulk shop.

Use what you buy: get portion sizes right by using a cup measure for rice, couscous or pasta. Cook creatively with leftovers: many recipes are flexible enough to absorb any wilting vegetables at the bottom of your fridge. Most leftovers will go into a taco, a sandwich, a curry, a frittata or a pasta sauce, and will be transformed with a sauce or relish. Chefs are increasingly keeping food waste prevention in mind when they share new recipes. Make good use of your freezer: food can be frozen until its expiry date or if it still looks tasty, if it doesn’t have a date. When you get back into a restaurant, you’re on the right side of history when you ask for a smaller portion or a doggy bag, so don’t hesitate to do so.