Global food waste campaigns suffer from data deficiency

Food waste has been rightfully identified as an issue worth addressing but a limited evidence base on how much is being wasted and where is seriously hindering our ability to reduce it.

Food waste is an issue of global significance, affecting food security and environmental sustainability, yet basic information is lacking on the types and quantities wasted. The available statistics give the illusion of information, but are based on very limited data.

Much has been written about global food insecurity since the food price rises of 2008. In September the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) waded into the debate with the publication of its trade and environment review 2013.

The title "Wake up before it is too late" sets the tone, imploring a greater sense of urgency in bringing about the 'ecological intensification' of global agriculture using approaches fundamentally different to those of the green revolution. Global food waste reduction is identified as one component of this approach.

Surprisingly little is known about global food waste. The UK government's Foresight programme has reported that estimates vary between a third and a half of global food production. The uncertainty relates to the cost and level of difficulty of conducting primary fieldwork, particularly in relation to post-harvest losses in developing economies. There are also significant gaps in understanding food wasted at the consumer level in different parts of the world. Collection of food waste data requires experienced in-country expertise and a commitment over many years. There are a few examples of this in action of which the African post-harvest losses information system (Aphlis) is the most established and well-respected.

Global food waste estimates are mainly based on old statistics recycled into 'new' estimates. Some of these estimates date back decades (many post-harvest loss studies were conducted during the 1970s and 1980s). Yet global food supply chains have changed as a result of factors such as urbanisation, growing environmental stresses and the demand for more diverse food. The lack of good data has not deterred the generation of high-level reports and analyses drawing attention to the role of global food waste reduction in meeting future food needs.

The recent spate of reports started in 2011, when a report (pdf) from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that the world wastes 1.3bn tonnes of food, equivalent to one third of agricultural outputs intended for human consumption. Losses were reported by seven food commodity types, further split by supply chain stage and region. But little current research was available to support the estimates and the report itself did not include full details of the sources used. However, it is possible to work the data coverage from information within the original contractor's report (pdf). For example, of the 40 supply chain stage/food commodity group estimates for south and south-east Asia, over 70% were based on assumptions, generic data or food waste estimates from other regions.

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