16.10.2019 |

FAO: 14% of the world’s food is lost between harvest and retail

Causes of on-farm losses vary (Photo: CC0)

Reducing food loss and waste is an important way to improve food security and nutrition, promote environmental sustainability and lower production costs. Cutting back on food waste would not only help to achieve progress towards the international target of reducing food loss and waste, but also contribute to a number of other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) thanks to the positive environmental impact. This is the message of a new report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Monday. According to “The State of Food and Agriculture 2019”, we can only make informed decisions and tackle food waste effectively if we have a solid understanding of the problem. The report therefore provides new estimates of food loss at different stages of the food supply chain and offers new ways to measure progress. “The surprising fact is how little we really know about how much food is lost or wasted, and where and why this happens,” said FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu in the foreword to the report. A broad estimate from 2011 suggested that around a third of the world’s food was lost or wasted each year. “This estimate is still widely cited due to a lack of information in this field, but it can only be considered as very rough,” Qu Dongyu writes.

FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) have therefore worked on a new methodological framework to estimate more precisely how much food is lost or wasted. The results are the Food Loss Index (FLI) presented in this report, which shows how much food is lost in production or in the supply chain before it reaches the retail level, and the Food Waste Index (FWI) for the consumer and retail level which is yet to be released by UN Environment. “Food loss and waste has typically been measured in physical terms using tonnes as reporting units. Although useful for estimating environmental impacts, this measurement fails to account for the economic value of different commodities and can risk attributing a higher weight to low-value products just because they are heavier,” FAO explains. The report recognises this by adopting a measure that also accounts for the economic value of a product. It found that around 14% of the world’s food is lost after harvesting and before reaching the retail level, including through on-farm activities, storage and transportation. However, the food losses vary considerably from one region to another within the same commodity groups and supply chain stages. At the regional level, estimates range from 5-6% in Australia and New Zealand to 20-21% in Central and Southern Asia.

The report found that losses and waste are generally higher for fruits and vegetables than for cereals and pulses at all stages in the food supply chain, with the exception of on-farm losses and those during transportation in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. But evidence presented in the report also shows a vast range in terms of loss and waste percentages within commodities, supply chain stages and regions. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, on-farm losses of fruits and vegetables are ranging from 0 to 50%. This “shows that we cannot generalize about the occurrence of food loss and waste across food supply chains but must, on the contrary, identify critical loss points in specific supply chains as a crucial step in taking appropriate countermeasures,” Qu Dongyu says in the foreword. Results indicate that harvesting is the most frequently identified critical loss point for all types of food. Inadequate storage facilities and poor handling practices were also named among the main causes of on-farm storage losses. For fruits, roots and tubers, packaging and transportation also appear to be critical. But the report also points to the importance of reducing food waste, which occurs at the retail and consumption level and is linked to limited shelf life and consumer behaviour, such as demanding food products that meet aesthetic standards, and limited incentive to avoid food waste.

The report urges countries to step up efforts to tackle the root causes of food loss and waste at all stages and provides guidance on policy and interventions to reduce food loss and waste. “Reducing food loss and waste generally entails costs, and farmers, suppliers and consumers will only take necessary measures if their costs are outweighed by the benefits.” This calls for public interventions in the form of investments or policies that create incentives for private actors to reduce food loss and waste or better information on existing net benefits, the report states. But even when stakeholders are aware of the benefits of reducing food loss and waste, they may face constraints that prevent them from implementing actions. For example, without financial help private actors in developing countries, especially smallholders, may not be able to bear the high upfront cost associated with implementing loss-reducing production techniques. Improving credit access could be an option.

The report highlights that reducing food loss and waste can also improve the food security of vulnerable groups and reduce the environmental footprint of food production. According to the authors, the largest improvements in food security are likely to occur by reducing food losses in the early stages of the supply chain, especially on-farm, in countries with high levels of food insecurity. To be environmentally effective, interventions need to consider where food loss and waste has the greatest impact on the environment. “Empirical evidence at the global level on the environmental footprints for major commodity groups suggests that, if the aim is to reduce land use, the primary focus should be on meat and animal products, which account for 60% of the land footprint associated with food loss and waste. If the aim is to target water scarcity, cereals and pulses make the largest contribution (more than 70%), followed by fruits and vegetables.” In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest contribution is again from cereals and pulses (more than 60%), followed by roots, tubers and oil-bearing crops. But the environmental footprint for different products also varies across regions and countries due to differences in crop yields and production techniques (e.g. rainfed versus irrigated production or grazing for livestock versus use of animal feed).” (ab)

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