UN’s Food Security and Nutrition report underscores need for action against food waste

High rates of global hunger while 39% of food is wasted reveals the urgency of reducing food waste to fight food insecurity and create a sustainable future.

Rotted apples | Marek Studzinski via Unsplash
Rotted apples | Marek Studzinski via Unsplash
Sophie Tedesco

Food & Agriculture Intern, U.S. PIRG

The United Nations (U.N.) just released its annual The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report, highlighting the alarming number of people facing hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition worldwide. The findings of this report emphasize the need for reforms in our global food system to help people facing hunger and work towards the U.N. target of eliminating world hunger by 2030. One global priority must be reducing food loss and waste because it keeps food from people who need it and worsens climate change, which is threatening the international food supply.

The report revealed that in 2021, about 9.8% of the world’s population—between 702 and 828 million people—were affected by hunger, meaning they were chronically undernourished. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 149 million more people are now facing hunger than before. Approximately 2.3 billion people, 29.3% of the global population, were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021. These people lacked regular access to food or had run out of food due to lack of resources. Additionally, a healthy diet was unaffordable for nearly 3.1 billion people in 2020.

The effects of hunger and food insecurity are horrifying. The U.N. report found that child wasting, “a life-threatening condition caused by insufficient nutrition intake,” afflicted 45.4 million children under the age of five, which is 6.7% of children in this age group, in 2020. Child stunting, defined as “being too short for one’s age” because of inadequate nutrition, affected 149.2 million children, 22% of kids, in 2020.

Despite the global prevalence of hunger and food insecurity, a staggering quantity of food is lost and wasted each year. While global hunger increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, food waste did as well. An estimated 39% of the world’s food supply is lost or wasted, which amounts to over 2 billion metric tons annually. This quantity of food is likely enough to feed 2 billion people, which is more than twice the number of people who were affected by hunger in 2021.

Food loss and waste occurs across the food supply chain from farms, processing and transport to retail and consumption at homes, restaurants and other institutions. We must make sure that the food produced on farms actually reaches people by optimizing harvesting, preservation and transport techniques. We must also reduce food waste by improving our food recovery practices to distribute food that would be thrown away to those facing hunger and food insecurity.

The U.N.’s latest report should serve as a wake-up call for the global community. After decades of progress on global hunger, we are moving farther away from the U.N.’s ambitious goal to eliminate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by 2030. According to the report, “the intensification of the major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition – conflict, climate extremes, economic shocks, combined with growing inequality – often occurring in combination, continues to challenge the quantity and quality of foods people can access.”

Food waste is exacerbating one of the major causes of food insecurity: climate extremes. Food loss and waste accounted for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans from 2010 to 2016. Global warming and climate change, in turn, create climate extremes that threaten the food supply. The U.N. report shows that climate change most affects the food supply in countries that already have higher rates of food insecurity. So, overproduction of food and subsequent food waste in wealthier, more food secure nations like the United States worsens climate change and contributes to increased food insecurity in other countries.

Without significant intervention, food insecurity, global hunger and malnutrition will only get worse. Fighting food loss and waste is one of the steps we must take to address the growing hunger crisis. Increased food production was supposed to solve global hunger, but in our current system, high levels of food waste mean that no matter how much food we produce, people are still going hungry. The existence of wasted food while people experience hunger is a clear and tragic misallocation of resources, and without action, the production of this wasted food will continue to worsen climate change, creating an ever-increasing threat to our long-term food security.

The U.N report underscores the human cost of the failures of our food system. Although food waste is a global problem, the U.S. government must address food waste in the 2023 Farm Bill and through other legislative action to begin reforming our domestic and international food system. For individuals who want to make a difference, reducing food waste in your own home is a place to start: try some of these tips to save food and prevent waste.

 

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Authors

Sophie Tedesco

Food & Agriculture Intern, U.S. PIRG

Danielle Melgar

Food & Agriculture Advocate, PIRG

Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.

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