Global Hunger and Food Waste

ISNA Green Initiative Team

July/August 2023

There is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone on the planet. Yet as many as 828 million people still go hungry.

After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting nearly 10% of people globally. From 2019 to 2022, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 150 million, a crisis driven largely by conflict, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Bank estimates that an additional 75 to 95 million people could be living in extreme poverty in 2022, compared to initial pre-pandemic projections.

An estimated 60% of the world’s hungry live in countries experiencing active conflict, mostly caused by disputes over food, water, or the resources needed to produce them. Conflict disrupts harvests, hampers the delivery of humanitarian aid, and forces families to flee their homes.

Climate change has a dramatic impact on the quantity and nutritious quality of food produced around the world. Drought, floods, fires, heatwaves, and other climate shocks are also forcing out people from their localities, destroying livelihoods, and pushing communities deeper into hunger.  

In 2022, the war in Ukraine has made conditions worse. Restricted global food supplies drive up prices, and threaten the world’s most vulnerable people and countries. More than 48 million people are facing emergency levels of hunger, with the threat of acute malnutrition, starvation, and death, according to the World Food Program (WFP). According to the report of the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC), about 193 million people in 53 countries/territories experienced acute food insecurity at crisis levels or worse in 2021.

Over 45 million children are affected by the most visible, severe, and potentially life-threatening form of acute malnutrition. Globally, 1 in 5 deaths among children under 5 is attributed to severe malnutrition resulting in the death of more than 1 million each year. 

Global Food Waste

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) and partner organization WRAP, Food Waste Index Report 2021 estimates that food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totals 931 million tons each year. Nearly 570 million tons of this waste occurs at the household level. The report also reveals that the global average of 74 kg per capita of food wasted each year is remarkably similar from lower-middle income to high-income countries. 

Nearly half of all fruits and vegetables produced globally are wasted and nearly 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or wasted annually. This costs the global economy around $940 billion annually. 

Food waste isn’t only what consumers scrape off their plate or leave to rot in their refrigerator. Global food waste begins from agricultural production and continues to the landfill. At the farm, the waste can be driven by a whole host of factors beyond the grower’s control. Weather, pests, disease, low market prices or high labor costs all lead to food left in the field. Food that may look perfectly ripe and edible in the field may be too ripe by the time it reaches the consumer, so it’s never harvested. 

The U.S. discards more food than any other country in the world, nearly 40 million tons or 30% of all food worth $48.3 billion is thrown away each year. It is estimated that about half of the water used to produce this food also goes to waste since agriculture is the largest human use of water. China and India produce more household food waste than any other country at an estimated 92 million and 69 million metric tons every year, respectively. This is unsurprising, considering both countries have by far the largest populations globally. 

In the U.S. and other developed countries, grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers are all responsible for most of the food waste. Grocery stores contribute to food waste by encouraging consumers to buy more than they need, overstocking shelves, and inaccurately predicting shelf life of damaging products. Even slightly blemished food items are taken off the shelf as they know customers want perfect looking produce.

“It’s not that easy to solve this complicated problem,” said Ned Spang, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis. Spang led a team of researchers examining global food loss and waste. The comprehensive review finds that there are larger systemic factors that drive food waste. The study points to the need to look at structural, cultural and social factors rather than only focusing on actions by individual producers and consumers. It’s not just consumers that are picky about their produce. 

Market-based quality or grade standards also play an unintentional role in food waste. “A lot of the criteria are based on the appearance of the product and may not have anything to do with eating quality or utility of the product,” said Elizabeth Mitcham, a postharvest extension specialist and director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis.

Losses after harvest are most pronounced in less-developed countries, where an estimated 30 percent of food is wasted. In tropical countries where humidity is an issue, food can rot or mold quickly if not dried properly or cooled. Growers and distributors often can’t afford the energy costs of drying, adequate storage or refrigerated transportation. Inadequate road infrastructure can also lead to higher levels of spoilage.

In the Quran, God has at many places warned us against waste: “…But waste not by excess: for Almighty God loves not the wasters.” (Quran 6:141).

Therefore, it is our responsibility to not only avoid waste but create awareness against waste. We need to urge governments and society to adopt policies which result in reducing waste from the farm level to consumption. 

ISNA Green Initiative has always been promoting awareness against waste in food or other aspects of life. The Green Ramadan campaign is a constant reminder about food waste. Unfortunately, Muslims around the world waste more food in Ramadan than any other time of the year. The ISNA Green Initiative team urges individuals and communities to join us in raising their voice against systematic problems of food waste. Reduced global food waste means more food available to the hungry population of the world.

ISNA Green Initiative Team Members: Huda Alkaff, Saffet Catovic, Nana Firman, Uzma Mirza, S. Masroor Shah (chair)

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