The Environment News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya – Over half of the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, finds a new study by the United Nations Environment Programme released today.

This staggering amount of waste plus environmental degradation is putting an end to a 100-year trend of falling food prices, the study warns. Food prices may increase by 30 to 50 percent within decades, forcing those living in extreme poverty to spend up to 90 percent of their income on food, findings that are supported by a recent report from the World Bank.

The UN report was issued at the UNEP Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Nairobi through Friday. The environment ministers are focused on finding solutions to the world’s environmental, financial, food and energy crises through the emerging concept of a green economy.

The report looks ahead to 2050 when the global population is expected to be close to 9.5 billion, up from the 6.76 billion people on Earth today.

“There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

Losses and food waste in the United States could be as high as 50 percent, according to some recent estimates. Up to one-quarter of all fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States is lost between the field and the table.

In Australia it is estimated that food waste makes up half of that country’s landfill. Almost one-third of all food purchased in the United Kingdom every year is not eaten.

Losses in the field between planting and harvesting could be as high as 40 percent of the potential harvest in developing countries due to pests and pathogens.

In Africa, the total amount of fish lost through discards, post-harvest loss and spoilage may be around 30 percent of landings. The report estimates that globally about 30 million metric tonnes of fish are discarded at sea every year.

Entitled “The Environmental Food Crisis: The environment’s role in averting future food crises,” the rapid assessment study was compiled by a group of experts from both within and outside UNEP. It supports UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s task force on the world food crisis.

The report points out that more than one-third of the world’s cereals is being used as animal feed, and that percentage could rise to half by 2050, aggravating poverty and environmental degradation.

Instead, the report suggests that recycling food wastes into animal feed and turning wastes such as straw and nutshells into cellulosic biofuels could reduce pressure on fertile lands and forest ecosystems.

Yet, even if these steps are taken, up to 25 percent of the world’s food production may become lost due to “environmental breakdowns” by 2050, the study finds. Already, cereal yields have stagnated worldwide and fish landings are declining.

The melting and disappearing glaciers of the Himalayas, linked to climate change, supply water for irrigation for near half of Asia’s cereal production or a quarter of the world production.

Globally, water scarcity may reduce crop yields by up to 12 percent. Climate change may accelerate invasive pests of insects, diseases and weeds, reducing yields by up to six percent worldwide.

Continuing land degradation, particularly in Africa, may reduce yields by up to eight percent, the report finds. Croplands may be swallowed up by urban sprawl, biofuels, cotton and land degradation by up to 20 percent by 2050, and yields may become depressed by up to 25 percent due to pests, water scarcity and land degradation.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, population growth is projected to more than double from the current 770 million to over 1.7 billion in less than 40 years, and the continent is also subject to severe climate change, water scarcity, and conflicts.

The report warns that increased use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, increased water use and cutting down of forests will result in a massive decline in biodiversity.

Already, nearly 80 percent of all endangered species are threatened due to agricultural expansion, and Europe has lost over 50 percent of its farmland birds during the last 25 years.

“Simply ratcheting up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th century is unlikely to address the challenge,” said Steiner. “It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils, the water and nutrient recycling of forests, and pollinators such as bees and bats.”

Organic food production is the one bright spot in this grim picture.

A recent report by UNEP and the UN Conference on Trade and Development surveyed 114 small-scale farms in 24 African countries, publishing their findings in late 2008.

The survey found that yields had more than doubled where organic or near-organic practices had been used, with the yield jumping to 128 percent in east Africa.

Organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and also provided environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.

“The Environmental Food Crisis” report offers seven major recommendations:
1. Regulate food prices and provide safety nets for the impoverished
2. Promote environmentally sustainable higher-generation biofuels that do not compete for cropland and water resources
3. Reallocate cereals used in animal feed to human consumption by developing alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards
4. Support small-scale farmers by a global fund for micro-finance in developing diversified and resilient ecoagriculture and intercropping systems
5. Increase trade and market access by improving infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, enhancing government subsidies and safety nets, as well as reducing armed conflict and corruption
6. Limit global warming
7. Raise awareness of the pressures of increasing population growth and consumption patterns on ecosystems

Steiner said, “We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature.”

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