February 25, 2015 | By

Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients

The Chicago Council’s campaign, “Healthy Food for a Healthy World,” builds awareness about the important role food can play in promoting health and alleviating malnutrition. We publish a blog post weekly exploring these issues and the series will culminate in the release of a new Chicago Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2015 on April 16. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live steam on April 16.

By Louise Iverson, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Every year, one third of the world’s food goes to waste. This global food waste emits 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gases – which, if food waste were a nation, would rank as the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land produces food that is wasted. 250 km3 of water is used to produce this wasted food, equivalent to the annual water discharge of the Volga River, the longest river in Europe. The estimated value of global food waste is $1 trillion annually.

Fruits and vegetables are also wasted in greater quantities than other kinds of food.  Annual global food loss is estimated at roughly 40–50 percent of root crops, fruits and vegetables; 30 percent of cereals; 20 percent of oilseeds, meat and dairy products; and 35 percent of fish. Because fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, spoil more quickly and are more difficult to transport than grains, they are wasted in greater quantities – along with the valuable nutrients they contain.  In total, the world is throwing away 1.3 billion tons of food annually, even as it faces the growing burden of malnutrition

In developing countries, food is typically wasted at the production level, often due to lack of access to technology and infrastructure. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 42 percent of fruits and vegetables cultivated by smallholder farmers are lost due to post-harvest loss. The lack of technology to efficiently harvest and store foods may cause farmers’ harvests to spoil or become contaminated before they can be sold or consumed.  A lack of access to markets means that farmers may not be able to sell their products at a reasonable price before they perish. 

In developed countries, food is mostly wasted by consumers– in supermarkets, restaurants and cafeterias, and in our homes. Since people tend to pass by bruised apples, misshapen carrots, and other imperfect fruits and vegetables, they are in turn rejected by retailers and often discarded by farmers and suppliers. Confusion about food dating labels leads more than 90 percent of Americans to prematurely throw out food. And with portion sizes growing, restaurants are responsible for 15 percent of the food in landfills.

Reducing global food waste would play a significant role in in feeding 9 billion nutritiously. Simple investments in infrastructure and technology, especially for smallholder farmers in developing countries, can prevent an enormous amount of food from going to waste during and after harvest. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has distributed 45,000 metal silos to smallholder farmers in 16 countries, which has almost entirely eliminated these farmers’ food loss due to poor storage. Primary processing initiatives can also help smallholder farmers reduce post-harvest loss, by processing foods before they spoil. Partners in Food Solutions, for example, connects volunteer experts from leading food and agribusiness companies—such as Cargill and General Mills – with food processors from African countries, helping these processors improve their capacity, efficiency, and product quality. As companies like Unilever and Coca-Cola increasingly source agriculture and food products sustainably from Sub-Saharan Africa, private sector investment in processing will play a valuable role in food waste reduction.

On the consumer side, retailers and consumers are starting to rethink the way they view produce, fostering a market for cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables, or “ugly foods.”  In 2014, Intermarche, France’s third-largest supermarket, launched the “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign” to encourage their customers to purchase misshapen produce, which they sell at a 30 percent discount: 

Their popular campaign prompted other retailers to take note: Waitrose in the UK and Safeway in Canada have launched similar measures, and Whole Foods praised the campaign in a recent interview.  By investing in how produce is collected and stored, and by adjusting our attitudes about imperfect foods, producers and consumers can ensure that healthy foods are consumed, rather than discarded.

What can we do to reduce food waste on farms and in fridges? Share your ideas with us @GlobalAgDev, or post them on our Facebook page.

References: Read previous posts in the Healthy Food for a Healthy World blog series: 

Food as Medicine—The Link Between Nutrition and Health

The $2 Trillion Market for Fruits and Vegetables

Economic Costs of Global Malnutrition


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.