London, Feb 21: Almost 20 per cent of the food made available to consumers worldwide is lost through over-eating or wastage, according to a new study.
The world population consumes around 10 per cent more food than it needs, while almost nine per cent is thrown away or left to spoil, researchers said.
Efforts to reduce the billions of tonnes lost could improve global food security ensuring everyone has access to a safe, affordable, nutritious diet - and help prevent damage to the environment, they said.
Scientists at University of Edinburgh in the UK examined ten key stages in the global food system - including food consumption and the growing and harvesting of crops - to quantify the extent of losses.
Using data collected primarily by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, the team found that more food is lost from the system than was previously thought.
Almost half of harvested crops - or 2.1 billion tonnes - are lost through over-consumption, consumer waste and inefficiencies in production processes, researchers said.
Livestock production is the least efficient process, with losses of 78 per cent or 840 million tonnes, the team found. Some 1.08 billion tonnes of harvested crops are used to produce 240 million tonnes of edible animal products including meat, milk and eggs.
This stage alone accounts for 40 per cent of all losses of harvested crops, researchers said.
Increased demand for some foods, particularly meat and dairy products, would decrease the efficiency of the food system and could make it difficult to feed the world's expanding population in sustainable ways, they said.
Meeting this demand could cause environmental harm by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, depleting water supplies and causing loss of biodiversity.
Encouraging people to eat fewer animal products, reduce waste and not exceed their nutritional needs could help to reverse these trends, the team said.
"Reducing losses from the global food system would improve food security and help prevent environmental harm," said Peter Alexander from Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences.
"Until now, it was not known how over-eating impacts on the system. Not only is it harmful to health, we found that over-eating is bad for the environment and impairs food security," Alexander said.
The study was published in the journal Agricultural Systems.