Food Waste: The Much-Forgotten Global “Pandemic”

Published on by Nitin Dani

How much do you leave on your plate every time you finish eating? A few scraps? A plateful? Or an entire banquet table? It’s truly mind boggling how much food we waste considering the consequences.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the world produces enough food waste — about 1.4 billion tons — to feed as many as 2 billion people each year. That's roughly one-third of the global food supply. And food waste alone causes 6 percent of greenhouse emissions. It has been estimated that if food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, according to FAO.

"The current food system is so unsustainable it could collapse by 2050 if the global food system is not transformed."

(The World Counts)


The history of food waste is closely linked to globalization. In an ever more networked world, supply chains get longer, and everything is available everywhere — Indian mangoes in Germany and Australian apples in China — the whole year round. On that often-long journey from farm to table, food is lost or wasted at every stage, and fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat are particularly vulnerable.

When edible items are discarded, it’s not just food that is wasted. Consider all the resources required to bring food from the farm to your table: water for irrigation, land for planting, fuel for powering harvest and transport vehicles. And not to mention the time and labor provided by farmers. When a bunch of bananas falls off a truck or restaurant owners fill their rubbish bins with uneaten meals, all those resources are essentially wasted right along with the food.

One third of greenhouse emissions globally come from agriculture, and 30% of the food we produce is wasted – about 1.4 billion tonnes of it a year. If, as a planet, we stopped wasting food altogether, we’d eliminate 6% of our total emissions.

But not all food waste is equal when it comes to carbon emissions. Meat and dairy products have much higher carbon emissions than fruit and vegetables, so reducing the amount of meat you waste will have a bigger impact than cutting down on throwing out carrots.

“I don't think people are completely aware of [the climate impacts of food waste] but I think the problem is even bigger, because most people, they don't actually waste food, according to themselves."
(Mattias Eriksson, Researcher of food waste at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences)


On a more local level, within China, more than 6%- or 35 million kgs– of the country’s total food production is lost before reaching consumers, in the household and warehouse storage, transport and processing sectors. There are 500 cities in China producing 50 tonnes of food waste every day. Bigger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, produce between 1,000 and 2,000 tons per day.

In the transport sector, there is a shortage of specialized transport vehicles for grains. About a quarter of grains is transported in loose form, and because of scattering and leaking, around 5% of grains- more than 30 billion tons- is lost annually.

In the processing stage, more than 7.5 billion kgs is lost annually because of over-processing of foods like rice.

Since the waste segregation regulation has come into play in 2019, Shanghai has also been collecting more than 9,000 tons of food waste per day, up 130% compared to 2017, according to Xu Zhiping, director of environment and sanitation management in the Shanghai municipal government.

But the volume of food waste has increased so quickly, the city is struggling to cope. Shanghai has a shortage of specialized trucks that can control leachate and odor from kitchen waste, as well as a lack of treatment facilities.

“The rising amount of wet (kitchen) waste has way exceeded the city’s planned treatment capacity,” says Xie Bing, professor at East China Normal University, estimating the gap to be as high as 2,000 tons per day.

The kitchen waste treatment center in southern Minhang District, has been running at full capacity since July 2019, says Lü Changhong, director of the facility. But the volume of waste collected in Minhang has tripled during the past two years, and the center cannot handle it all, Lü added. Lots of food waste still ends up in landfills or incinerators, says Lü.

In the end, the only solution is to REDUCE. Reducing the amount of food we waste can help decrease the amount of food that ends up in landfills and incinerators as well as lessen our contribution to climate change. But how do we do so?