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By Nodira Kurbanbaeva and Yiska Agoussi ’26
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  • Department of Global Development
  • Food
  • Global Development

The Humphrey PACT (Practitioner - Assistant - Collaborative - Training) Program pairs undergraduate students in Global Development with Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows to work on a research endeavor in the fields of agriculture, rural development, and natural resource management. In this bilateral exchange, each undergrad is assigned as a research assistant, contributing to the Humphrey Fellow’s work from their home countries. Humphrey Fellows, who are mid-career professionals from around the world, gain support from students, while students get direct experiences with real-world development projects. 

As part of the PACT Program, Nodira Kurbanbaeva (Humphrey Fellow from South Uzbekistan) and Yiska Agoussi ’26 (Global Development) dove into a grand global challenge: the role that food and loss waste play in the food system’s significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. In this field note, the PACT research pair explores the causes and impacts of food loss and waste, and highlights the importance of integrated approaches, data collection, and landscape mapping in achieving sustainable food systems.

What is food loss and waste?

Food loss refers to the decrease in quantity and quality of agricultural, forestry, and fishery products during production and distribution, while food waste refers to edible food intended for human consumption but discarded or expired. The term "food loss and waste" encompasses both categories of inefficiencies related to unused food within the food system. Together, these inefficiencies within the food system contribute to the loss of valuable resources such as water, land, energy, labor, and capital. When food waste is disposed of in landfills, it generates greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating climate change. Food loss and waste alike have negative impacts on food security, food availability, and the cost of food.

Emissions from the food supply chain

The food supply chain, encompassing food processing, packaging, transportation, and food waste, has surpassed farming and land use as the primary source of GHG emissions in many countries. GHGs are generated at every stage of the food supply system, including production and consumption. Decomposition of food waste in landfills produces methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. According to Recycle Track Systems, approximately 2.5 billion tons of food is wasted globally each year, valued at an estimated 2.6 trillion USD annually.

In particular, according to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates, approximately 14% of the world's food is lost during the transition from harvest to retail, while an additional 17% is wasted at the retail and consumption levels. The most recent UNEP Food Waste Index Report from 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. These alarming figures are particularly concerning considering that 811 million people still suffer from hunger. Moreover, the consequences of this FLW have significant far-reaching environmental impacts, contributing to 8-10% of global GHG emissions. These emissions contribute to an unstable climate and extreme weather events like droughts and flooding, which further disrupt crop yields, diminish the nutritional value of crops, and pose threats to food security. Given these dire consequences, there is an urgent imperative to accelerate efforts and take decisive action to reduce FLW.

A global issue

Our research revealed that the problem of FLW is not limited to specific countries but affects both the Global North and Global South. While countries in the Global North often exhibit higher levels of food waste, particularly at the consumer and retail levels, countries in the Global South experience higher levels of food loss, primarily at the production and post-harvest stages due to inadequate infrastructure and limited access to technology. However, recent studies reject the notion that food waste is solely a problem of in the Global North. The UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 estimates that household food waste per capita is similar across high-income, upper middle-income and lower-middle income countries, with insufficient data to make conclusions on low-income countries. Moreover, it was estimated 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, highlighting the need for global action to address this issue.

As the world’s population continues to grow, our challenge should not be how to grow more food, but to feed more people while wasting less of what we already produce. Thankfully, there are plenty of actions we can take at the consumer level to make a significant difference. From delivering leftovers to those in need to freezing food, shopping smarter, and composting to keep inedible scraps out of landfills, we can all take small steps to curb our emissions.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – specifically SDG 12, target 12.3 – calls for halving per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains. As the deadline for the completion of the SDGs approaches within a decade, it becomes crucial to take immediate action. The United Nations advocates for an approach known as "target-measure-act" to address this urgency. Under this approach, countries and companies establish specific targets for reducing their FLW, thoroughly measure the situation across their supply chains, and then take decisive action to achieve those reductions.

Integrated approaches to achieve sustainable food systems

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and mitigate the impacts of FLW, it is crucial to adopt integrated approaches that maximize the use of food resources. These approaches involve implementing innovative technologies, such as e-commerce platforms and retractable mobile food processing systems, and promoting good practices to manage food quality and reduce waste. Sustainable agri-food systems require the involvement of all stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil society, producers, processors, retailers, restaurateurs, and educational institutions that can promote food literacy and sustainable practices.

Importance of data collection and landscape mapping

We are sure that accurate, traceable, and comparable data collection is essential for developing effective food waste reduction policies and achieving the targeted 50% reduction in consumer food waste outlined in SDG 12.3.1(b). However, data on food waste is currently inadequate. Measuring progress in reducing food loss and waste is challenging due to the difficulty of estimating and collecting data across the entire supply chain. The lack of comprehensive data hampers global efforts to address FLW. Implementing landscape mapping of food waste actors, along with improved data collection systems, can provide valuable insights into the roles, practices, and contributions of stakeholders in the food supply chain. This information can inform targeted interventions and strategies to combat food waste.

Conclusion

Addressing FLW is vital for achieving sustainable food systems. By adopting integrated approaches and promoting data collection and landscape mapping, we can reduce FLW, mitigate climate change impacts, enhance food security, and promote sustainable agri-food systems. Each individual can contribute by taking small steps to reduce waste and make a positive impact. With collective action, we have an opportunity to transform our food systems, ensuring a more sustainable and equitable future.

About the authors

Nodira Kurbanbaeva headshot

Nodira is a head researcher at the Center for Economic Research and Reforms in Uzbekistan. Her areas of expertise are international trade, trade facilitation, and agriculture sector development policies.

Headshot

Yiska is a freshman from Bethesda, Maryland majoring in Global Development with a minor in Law & Society at Cornell University.

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