Global Food Report: 30–50% global food produced is discarded

IMechE Food Report Cover-web

By Max Liboiron.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers released their report on Global Food trends in anticipation of massive human population growth in the next 50 years. The trend that mattered most was the acute waste of nearly half the global food supply:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.

The report divides developed from developing nations by the different infrastructural elements that lead to food waste. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers states that food waste in developing nations is due to agricultural infrastructure, where harvesting, transporting and storage practices lead to spoil. Food does, after all, spoil, and without a massive, efficient, refrigerated infrastructure, that food is going to spoil on its “natural” schedule.  In developed nations with our quick, chilled, global infrastructure, waste happens on the retail and consumer side of things according to the report:

Major supermarkets, in meeting consumer expectations, will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance. For example, up to 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of such practices. Globally, retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way.

Of the produce that does appear in the supermarket, commonly used sales promotions frequently encourage customers to purchase excessive quantities which, in the case of perishable foodstuffs, inevitably generate wastage in the home. Overall between 30% and 50% of what has been bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser.

What I want to note here is that interventions that focus on consumer behaviour after food is purchased accounts for the least amount of food waste– note that sales promotions is cited as the step that leads to post-consumer waste. This isn’t to say that consumer food waste is absent, but that ignoring the market-driven infrastructure that characterizes our food system is going to miss most of the food waste out there. Food waste is not what happens in an instance, over and over again, but the result of an entire system, and discard scholars and advocates of less food waste need to look to the overall economic system that drives our food system to find the best points of leverage and intervention to avoid technological fixes for systemic problems.

You can download the full report here.
Read the Press Release on the Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not


Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.