Food: The big waste problem of the year for 2021?

17 March, 2021

A couple of years ago we put together an article entitled ‘Food: The big waste problem of the year for 2019?’ and it looked at how we treat food waste, some incredible facts about it, who is accountable, how it pollutes our water sources, and more. Now, at the start of 2021, we are updating and republishing this content, providing even more context to the story.

Back in 2019

We were celebrating the plastic bag ban and the collective efforts of everyone who made it happen. We applauded the businesses who were proactive and removed plastic bags before the ban, and we championed companies who reduced their packaging and who removed microbeads from products. Then we had another celebration when plastic straws were removed and replaced. 

After it all died down, smug with our victory, us environmentalists started tackling another area of consumer waste that could really be reduced. Food waste. We wanted to know how we could reduce it? How could we make something positive from it? How could we teach people to shop more efficiently? How could we get restaurants and caterers to waste less? How could we put food waste in the public eye in the same way that plastic is?

There were a lot of questions, but some answers haven’t changed. One thing that did change in 2021 was food habits, especially as restaurants and hotels shut their doors, forcing people to cook more and rely on supermarket produce for their nutrition. 

Firstly, what happens to it?

It gets buried under the ground, or it gets burned or anaerobically digested for energy (the latter options are preferable for the sustainability-minded). The visual challenge of food waste is a lot trickier because if a seagull or a turtle eats food waste, they’re more likely to be nourished than to die (as is sometimes the case with plastic). Food waste is not floating on the oceans, it is not often considered litter, and it is mostly made of things that can be planted, grown, and made over and over. Knowing that food waste is different, how do we wage war on it?

The methods used to create a public vendetta against unnecessary plastics might not be so effective when used on food.

Fight fire with fire facts

I think if we are going to make people, businesses, governments, changemakers, policymakers, influencers, nations, and communities all address the food waste problem, we’re going to have to shock them into submission through hard data and facts. Here are a few of my favourites.

Here are the facts we published in 2019

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) revealed back in 2013 that we have been wasting a collective 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year. This figure has grown to 1.4 billion tonnes since and is predicted to grow to 2.1 billion tonnes by 2030.
  • 1.4 billion tonnes of food is not only huge, but it’s considered to be enough to comfortably feed 2 billion people per year, almost a quarter of Earth’s population. 
  • This 1.4 billion tonnes of food waste is actually representative of one-third of the total global food supply. You read that correctly, one-third of all food on Earth is wasted.
  • “In a world of 7 billion people, set to grow to 9 billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally, and ethically,” said Achim Steiner, U.N. Environment Program Executive Director. Achim, I’m completely with you on that one!
  • Food waste releases a large amount of greenhouse gas, an estimated 3.3 billion tonnes per year. This gas then affects the atmosphere, climate change, and growing conditions around the planet. Agriculture suffers, as bad crops and harvests, droughts, and more, increase the instances of food loss, where communities cannot get enough food in the first place, let alone waste it.
  • “We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost because of inappropriate practices, when 870 million people go hungry every day” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva stated.

Here are some new facts from 2020

  • The FAO has now reported 690 million people going hungry every day, a drop of 180 million, despite the population growing by around 80 million. This is a small victory in a longer battle
  • Around 3 billion people cannot afford a nutritionally healthy diet
  • Food waste has increased during the coronavirus of 2021, despite 132 million additional people entering the ‘at risk’ section of food security
  • Fruit and vegetable loss on farms in sub-saharan Africa rose to 50%, massively threatening food security and creating early issues in food chain waste
  • During the lockdowns, food waste dropped by around 30% in the UK, but as soon as restrictions eased, figures increased, though not quite to pre-lockdown levels. 48% of people surveyed said they threw away less during lockdown and only 5% reported throwing away more
  • Fish are being held to unreasonably high standards in order to be packaged and sold to customers, resulting in almost 60% of all fish caught in Europe being discarded
  • The UK is responsible for 20 million tonnes of food waste every year when tallying all of the stages from agriculture to consumption

Who is going to take responsibility for food waste in the future?

Food waste is a shared responsibility between the producer and the consumer. Whilst you may believe that most food waste is down to consumers buying more than they need and thus wasting food, this is a misconception. 

Read this extract from the FAO:

Fifty-four percent of the world’s food wastage occurs “upstream” during production, post-harvest handling and storage, according to FAO’s study. Forty-six percent of it happens “downstream,” at the processing, distribution and consumption stages.

As a general trend, developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural production, while food waste at the retail and consumer level tends to be higher in middle- and high-income regions — where it accounts for 31-39% of total wastage — than in low-income regions (4-16%).

We are all responsible to some extent, but what can we do about it? The FAO suggests three methods to implement immediately: 

  1. The first is to reduce food wastage in the production stage by improving farming practices, balancing production and demand, and not producing food that is not needed. 
  2. The second is to reuse food in the human food chain when we have a surplus (a common cause for waste), by means such as donation, animal feed, or conservation. 
  3. The third method is recycling and recovery, which as I mentioned earlier consists of anaerobic digestion and incineration. What I didn’t mention was home composting, which is a very good way to make your food waste into something positive. I also didn’t mention by-product recycling, which involves taking certain wastes that are created during the manufacturing stage and using them for good (for example, rice husks can be used to create energy).

The water problem

Here’s what Imvelo’s Founder, Tamma Carel, said at the end of 2018 about water’s relationship to food waste:

One of the reasons why I think 2019 will be a big year for food waste is because of ‘Day Zero’. Day Zero is the day when a city’s water supply runs out, and it almost happened in 2018 in my native South Africa. Cape Town was on the verge of running out of water, and while it was saved at the 12th hour, the crisis is far from over.

Food takes an incredible amount of water to produce. Just one loaf of bread requires 100 buckets of water, one chicken breast is equivalent to 54 buckets of water, and even a single potato takes 6 buckets of water. The two problems go hand in hand, and so each time we see a water crisis, it will be linked to food, and each time we see a food crisis, it will be linked to water.

SDG 6 – Ensure water and access to sanitation for all – was designed to tackle the problem Tamma talks about, but it doesn’t relate just to food waste, it explores water in general. 2020 was a very challenging year for those in places with water scarcity, with the covid restrictions reducing productivity, placing an increased agricultural demand on farmers.


Perhaps the key to food waste lays in its relationship with water. Perhaps we need to farm more efficiently, using vertical farms or with greater application of technology. Perhaps there is a visual argument to be made with food waste, but will it be effective unless a world-class spokesperson (like Sir David Attenborough) gets behind it? Perhaps the way to get the public to engage with the food waste problem is to show them all of the knock-on effects, the hard data, and what a world without an easy supply of water might look like.

In 2021, perhaps we will see all of the above. Perhaps we won’t see any. Perhaps, we just need to self-examine our decisions better.

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