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What impact does food waste have on society?

Food waste is a global issue negatively affecting the environment, biodiversity, natural resources, and increasing economic and social costs

Food waste is a global issue. The impact of food waste on our food system is negatively affecting the environment, biodiversity, and natural resources, and has increasing economic and social costs. Reducing food loss and waste is an urgent and vital step in the process of creating more sustainable food systems.

“If every person in the UK wasted no food at home for one day, it could have the same impact on greenhouse gases as planting half a million trees” (WRAP, October 2020)

Environmental footprint

Food loss and waste have three generally quantifiable types of environmental footprints:

  1. Greenhouse gas emissions (carbon footprint)
  2. Pressure on land resources (land footprint)
  3. Pressure on water resources (water footprint)

These three footprints may, in turn, affect biodiversity.

Carbon footprint

This is the total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted throughout the food’s life cycle expressed in CO2 equivalent. This includes all GHGs emitted during production, transportation, processing, distribution, and consumption, as well as the emissions from waste disposal.

The global carbon footprint of food waste has been estimated at 4.4 Gtonnes of CO2. If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter on Earth, after USA and China.

Land footprint

There is no generally applicable method to measure the entire land footprint of food production. Some reports estimate the land footprint of food based on the surface of land needed to produce that food.

Land use is critical in terms of climate change, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Intensive farming diminishes soil fertility which leads to further use of synthetic inputs that cause pollution and, eventually, loss of arable land.

In 2007, 1.4 billion hectares of agricultural land was used to produce food that wasn’t consumed, almost a third (28%) of the world’s total agricultural land area. This represents a surface larger than Canada and India together.

Major contributors to land occupation of food that’s wasted are meat and milk.

Water footprint

Agriculture accounts for 70% of the global freshwater withdrawal; the remaining 30% is taken for industrial production and domestic water supply. The water footprint of a food product is a measure of all the freshwater used to produce and supply that product to its final consumer, at all stages of the supply chain.

In 2007, the global water footprint for agricultural production was about 250km3. In terms of volume, it represents almost 3 times the volume of Lake Geneva. Cereals, fruits, and meat are major contributors to the water footprint of wasted food.

Uneaten food is one of several factors that contribute to biodiversity loss through habitat change, over-exploitation, pollution, and climate change. Some 9.7 million hectares are deforested annually to grow food, representing 74% of total annual deforestation.

Food security and the social perspective

Nearly 820 million people globally are undernourished and one billion people overfed. Simultaneously, millions of tonnes, or a quarter of the calories intended to feed humans, becomes food loss and waste along the food supply chain.

This coexistence of food waste, starvation and malnutrition is one of the greatest paradoxes of our time. The global consensus is that, under current production and consumption trends, global food production will ‘need’ to increase by 60% by 2050 based on population growth.

Food waste activists argue that increasing total global food production isn’t the answer and call out for more efficient consumption habits. Lost and wasted food represents a missed opportunity to feed the growing world population.

The ethical perspective

There are two reasons why food waste is considered an ethical issue:

  1. The wasted nutrients could have been used to alleviate hunger problems in poor countries
  2. The waste of resources is detrimental to the health of other humans, animals, plants and ecosystems.

The financial perspective

Food waste has significant economic costs, estimated to amount to around €143 billion in the EU. This includes costs to producers (who leave produce un-harvested); processors (who discard edible products that do not adhere to market size and aesthetic standards); retailers (who lose products due to spoilage during transport and throw away unsold products); and households (who waste money because of spoilage, lack of knowledge, over-purchase and confusion about best-before and use-by dates).

WRAP reports that in the UK, an average family with children wastes the equivalent of £700 every year. In addition to the monetary cost of the food wasted, there are also additional financial costs associated with collecting, managing, and treating the waste.

Wasted resources

When we waste food, we are also wasting all the resources that have been used to produce that food, such as land, water, soil, energy and all the other inputs invested.

Reducing food waste would bring numerous benefits. It would help to address food poverty as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It would protect the natural environment, and it would also save a lot of money.

© EIT Food
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From Waste to Value: How to Tackle Food Waste

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