Food Waste Index: Food (Waste) For Thought

Food Waste Index: Food (Waste) For Thought

Here’s some “food for thought” for you. Imagine sitting amidst 62 lakhs of the world’s heaviest mammal, the blue whale. The sheer size of it makes one’s jaws drop. The figure is equivalent to the amount of food waste generated by consumers around the world in a year. Surprised?

It has been estimated that 9 million people die every year due to hunger-related issues and a child loses its life every 10 seconds due to malnutrition and hunger. If you’re wondering why, the answer is quite simple. People do have access to sufficient and nutritious food, but the amount of food waste generated is almost 1/3rd of the global food production. The morsel of food that ends up in your dustbin every other day could save 9 million lives. Moreover, the waste which eventually reaches one of the thousands of landfills in the world produces 3.5 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gases (GHG). These GHGs cause climate change that affects our food production and agriculture. And one day, we might not have enough to eat, let alone “waste”.

The grave concern around food waste affecting the food security of the people and the multi-faceted benefits from reducing waste has to be recognized. There is a need to create visibility to Goal 12 of Sustainable Development Goals – 2030, “ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns” which includes the target of reducing food waste. As a part of the journey in understanding food waste, the first-ever Food Waste Index Report 2021 has been released by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), to account for SDG 12.3 and measure the achievements towards attaining the goal.  

Understanding the Food Waste Index  

As per the FAO and UNEP, ‘food waste’ refers to those food substances which are processed or intended for human consumption but are removed from the retail/consumption food supply chain – by retailers, food service providers, and households and end up in landfills to add to the solid waste generated. It is not to be confused with food loss, which has its focus on the loss in the production stages in the food chain unlike the focus on consumption stages by food waste.

The SDG 12.3 captures the aspect of food waste and food loss. The target SDG 12.3 states that, “by 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”. Despite being recognized by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the numerous impacts food waste has on the economic, social, and environmental aspects have not been explored or are widely overlooked.

The domino effects of the seemingly harmless morsel of food that ends up in our waste bins regularly, based on a study from UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Wastage Footprint, are shared below:

  1. The direct monetary/financial cost to the economy due to the food wasted and lost in the world is approximately USD 1 trillion every year. This is greater than the aggregated net worth of the world’s top 5 wealthiest people.
  2. Environmentally, food waste is responsible for generating 3.5 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gases. In addition, the production process of these foods causes water and soil pollution. All the environmental impacts have a market value of around USD 700 billion per year.
  3. Food wastage also creates a shortage in the supply of food and causes food prices to increase. The increased price, combined with the created food shortage due to wastage, results in nutritional deficiencies (health issues) and hunger in low-income countries. The social cost of food wastage amounts to over USD 900 billion per year.

The understanding of food waste and the implementation of robust mechanisms to reduce it can go a long way in creating a sustainable world. The Food Waste Index is the lead undertaken by the UNEP as an initiative towards the commitment to reducing food waste across levels. The quantification of food waste, across nations, can promote efficient use of resources and create better waste management mechanisms for positive impact on climate change and food security. 

Findings of the Food Waste Index Report 2021

A three-level measurement methodology was adopted to provide us with accurate and insightful data, given the limited data available on food waste. The first step was to extrapolate existing data from the countries to provide preliminary estimates of food waste. The next stage was the primary data collection, based on a framework formulated by the UNEP. The strategy behind establishing national-level studies in countries was to create a consistent methodology and provide policymakers with a quantification mechanism. Finally, supplementary materials with secondary data and waste prevention strategies were sourced from multiple sources.

Through the extensive modeling framework adopted, the Food Waste Index Report provides us with insights into the proportion of food waste generated by households, foodservice outlets, and retailers. As per the estimate, based on 2019 data, around 931 million tonnes, equivalent to 17% of the total global food production, is the amount of food waste generated in the world. The estimates determined by the Food Waste Index also showcase the significant underestimation of the scale of food waste in the previous estimation efforts undertaken. 

 Food Waste Index Report 2021

Furthermore, the report also debunked some of the popular narratives of food waste generation. The divergence was noted in the notion of greater consumer food waste in developed countries versus the food losses in production and transportation in developing countries. Household food waste generation was found to be similar across countries, irrespective of the income group they belong to. This finding is vital to understanding the issue at hand by the countries and undertake relevant targeted strategies to tackle food waste generation.

The report also highlights the low data availability for food waste and has also formulated a framework for its measurement. The transition towards a ‘global measurement approach’ for food waste can help increase the visibility of the food waste issue at hand and promote discussions on achieving SDG 12.3. Moreover, it would also aid in ensuring data compatibility and consistency to undertake comparison studies across nations. The UNEP also seeks to utilize the UNSD Questionnaire on Environment Statistics (Waste Section) for future reports on Food Waste.

India’s status in the domain of Food Waste

India is one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. Parallelly, India has ranked 94th with a score of 27.2 denoting severe hunger by the Global Hunger Index 2020. It is high time to question why people in India die out of hunger and suffer from severe undernourishment when it is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers. According to the estimates of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report, in India, around 50 kg of food is wasted per person in a year from households. In total, the food waste generated from households is approximately 68.7 million tonnes every year. The estimates are computed through the identified data points with “medium confidence”, or to simply put, the estimation has sufficient prediction accuracy.

Only three studies were identified in the country conducted in Dehradun and Rajam (Andhra Pradesh) and these studies are not without their own problems of the study area and sample size. Such a scenario highlights the data gap at the national level making it hard to understand the state-wise variations in food waste. The NITI Aayog has initiated publishing an annual report “SDG India Index” for measuring the SDGs across states. Unfortunately, food waste (SDG 12.3) is not one of the indicators under the India Index. 

At the international stage, India is one of the largest regional actors in the Asia-Pacific Region and one of the fastest-growing economies. Moreover, it houses a large share of the global population which could be translated as a greater proportion of end-users and households, in a single geographical area. Let us look at how India performs in comparison to some of its counterparts from around the world. 

India is the second-largest generator of household food waste in the world, trailing closely behind China which generates 91 million tonnes of food waste annually. The average estimates for the South Asian Region are determined by estimates from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Out of the 4 countries, India has the lowest per capita household food waste generated but the presence of a large population nullifies the effect of the low per capita food waste. The first Food Waste Index provides us with only very limited nation-specific insights due to a lack of data availability. But India can work and strive to emerge as a front runner in Asia and set an example for other developing countries.

Recommendations to reduce Food Waste in India: 

Mapping and Measurement of Food Waste

  1. The National Food Waste Data Generation: The lack of national data collection processes to measure food waste adds to the woes in understanding the magnitude of the issue at hand. Hence, the starting point to capturing the issue of food waste in India is the identification and generation of required data by both the State and Union Governments in India to fill the gaps in regional and national data availability. 
  2. Inclusion of Target 12.3 in SDG India Index: Adding the target of SDG 12.3 to the “SDG Index of India” can aid in this process of bridging data gaps and creating visibility to the magnitude of the issue at hand. Also, the recognition of best practices on food waste reduction measures from across the country could be shared with a larger audience and stakeholders.

National & State Level Policy Initiatives

  1. Livestock Feed Sourcing: One’s trash is another’s treasure and this applies to food waste. Food waste can be utilized as feed for animals such as pigs. Respective State Governments can identify possible rearing facilities where food waste could be sent to or transferred to be utilized as feed rather than being dumped in landfills.
  2. Construction of composting in Large Halls/Restaurants: The government can mandate the construction of composting and biogas generation plants in large banquet halls and restaurants. By mandating this, two objectives can be achieved – one, reduction in the food waste being dumped in landfills, and the possibility of monetizing the biogas produced for cooking/heating purposes and reducing the dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
  3. Consumer Awareness Programmes & Campaigns: Households generate over 60% of the total food waste generated in the country. Campaigns utilizing infographics and awareness-creating content must be undertaken by the government. It can also introduce a Food Waste Clock, showing real-time data on food waste in all government websites and offices. Apart from creating awareness, initiatives to reduce food waste at household levels must also be communicated through the program. Alongside, the steps should be undertaken to provide consumers with the details of labeling of food products such as the “best before” and “expiry” dates and their meanings clearly.
  4. Legislative Targets for Corporates and Retailers: An upper cap for the amount of waste generated could be formulated for large retailers and hospitality services. An incentivization scheme for lower food waste generation could induce the firms to reduce the waste generated in the foodservice and retail sector. Moreover, CSR investments in the management of food waste can be promoted among industries, by governmental organizations. 
  5. A Guidance Tool Kit: In an effort to create a difference, a tool kit, with strategies, programs, and activities to prevent and reduce food waste could be compiled for reference. The strategies could be based on measurable and tried-and-tested methods from other countries. 

Household and Community Level Initiatives

Every individual’s effort counts in making a visible change and moving towards the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. By incorporating new simple changes in our everyday life we can make an impact. 

  1. Understand what expiry and manufacturing mean before throwing out food (especially food grains and pulses).
  2. By separating food waste from other wastes, we can undertake composting or donate it to nearby animal shelters.
  3. Food redistributions can be promoted within our circles, to prevent wastage of food in medium or large-scale events.
  4. Take smaller servings for meals and go for refills if needed. The untouched food can be packed and the leftovers can be shared with others or can be served in the next meal.


“Food Waste” is a very pressing issue at hand. We have to recognize the scale of the multifaceted impacts of food waste – the strain on waste management systems, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and its impact on food security. All countries have, almost equally contributed to the global food waste and have greater stakes in reducing the food waste issue, irrespective of income levels. One of the major contributors to help achieve the reduction is households or consumers who are responsible for generating over 60% of the food wastes. Every one of us has a role to play by making the right choices in our consumption behaviors. We can either remain in the status quo of a world filled with hunger, climate change, and resource depletion or strive towards changing our behaviour to achieve the SDG 12.3. The choice is ours to make.