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UN Report: The World Is Wasting A Quarter Of Its Food

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One out of every four calories produced by world agriculture is being lost or wasted, according to new report released by the United Nations Environment Programme.

And, the report concludes, when we waste food, we’re also wasting the greenhouse gas emissions, water and land it takes to produce that food – not to mention the money.

Its solution? A world war on food waste.

“The world faced an analogous failure of efficiency in the 1970s; that time with energy,” the report states. “But in the face of record oil prices and growing demand, the world essentially waged war on energy wastefulness and significantly improved its energy efficiency. Yet a ‘war on waste’ has yet to be waged when it comes to food. Given that food prices recently hit historic highs and global food demand continues to rise, now is the time.”

UNEP is focusing its World Environment Day events today on reducing food waste, and its new report, “Reducing Food Loss And Waste,” offers some suggestions, including: Better food redistribution and donations, evaporative coolers in places without refrigeration, better food storage for crops, easy-to-understand food expiration date labels, more consumer education and smaller portion sizes at restaurants and cafeterias. It proposes setting targets and creating organizations devoted to reducing food waste.

The report estimates that cutting food waste in half by 2050 would cover 22 percent of the food gap between what is available today and what will be needed as the world population grows to an anticipated 9.3 billion by mid-century. It would also make better use of the resources that go into producing food and prevent methane emissions from rotting food.

“Globally, the amount of food loss and waste in 2009 was responsible for roughly 3,300-5,600 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the upper end of which is almost equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption by the United States in 2011,” the report states. “Food loss and waste are associated with approximately 173 billion cubic meters of water consumption per year, which represents 24 percent of all water used for agriculture. … And 28 million tons of fertilizer are used annually to grow this lost and wasted food.”

Food is “lost” during the production and distribution process because of damage during harvesting, rejection based on quality standards, inefficient harvesting methods that leave food in the fields, pests, spillage and expiration in stores. It is “wasted” when people buy it but don’t eat it.

More than half of the food that is lost and wasted, 56 percent, occurs in the developed world and 44 percent occurs in developing countries. There is more food waste in the developed world and more food loss in the developing world.

Per capita, North America is a major food waster – on average, a family of four throws out $1,600 worth of food per year.

The report found that meeting a 50 percent food waste reduction goal is “daunting” because so much depends on changing consumer behavior. One way to do that, though, might be to change the way expiration dates are presented on packaged food and drinks. Instead of a “sell by” date, which can be confusing to consumers, the report recommends a “best before” date and a “use by” for items where food safety is of concern.

Another suggestions to shrink portion sizes at restaurants. American diners typically don’t finish 17 percent of the food they buy at restaurants and they leave more than half of that behind to be thrown out.

The report suggests cafeterias can ditch trays that allow for “hoarding” behavior. A study of dining halls at American universities found that eliminating trays reduced food waste by 25-30 percent. And “all-you-can-eat” buffets can be replaced with “pay-by-weight” systems to give customers “a clear economic incentive not to take more food than necessary.”

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