Food waste and food loss is a bigger issue than most think.
It happens at different stages of the food lifecycle – between food being produced on the farm, and when it arrives in your house or on your plate.
It also occurs in different ways in developed, and developing countries.
In this guide we summarise relevant stats, causes, how much food is wasted and lost daily and yearly, foods that are most commonly wasted, the effect of food waste, potential solutions, and more.
Summary – Food Waste & Food Loss
There is a difference between food loss and food waste
Food loss is essentially food lost in the production and distribution segments of the food supply chain.
It results more from the food systems themselves
Food waste on the other hand is food that has spoiled or expired, and is mainly caused by economic behaviour, poor stock management, consumer behavior or neglect
On a country level – Americans currently waste the equivalent of a third of the daily calories they consume per day
Food waste rates differ between countries – the US isn’t the only high waste country
Globally, we waste one third to one half of all the food we produce
Perishable foods like fruits and vegetables (and diets classified as ‘high quality’) have the highest waste rates, compared to other foods like meats and grains
Some dairy, and fish and seafood in particular can also have a high waste rate depending on how fresh it is, how it’s sold and how it’s stored and consumed
Nuts and seeds, potatoes and mixed potato dishes, and table oils and salad dressing – can have the lowest waste rates among food groups
There are different causes for food loss and waste at each stage of the food lifecycle – that lifecycle being growing/harvest, post harvest, food processing, transport, retail, and consumption
There’s also a difference in the way developed/industrialized countries, and developing and low income countries waste or lose food
Developing countries might lose more food at the pre consumer stage – on farms, or immediately post harvest on the way to market (due to financial, managerial and technical constraints, as well as a lack of storage and cold storage technology + other reasons)
Developed countries tend to waste a lot more food at the retail and consumer stage (due to seller and consumer attitudes and behaviors towards food, lack of co-ordination in the supply chain, and cosmetic standards for food, attitudes towards the food waste, + other reasons)
Economically, food losses and waste amounts to roughly US $680 billion in industrialized countries and US $310 billion in developing countries
Different estimates put the total global cost of food waste annually at $750 billion to $1 trillion [and some estimates say that if you add environmental impact to this figure, it adds another $700 billion]
Some estimates indicate that dairy as a food groups by far accounts for the biggest financial loss as a % of overall financial loss from food waste
What some people don’t consider is that food waste and loss has an indirect impact on the environment, resource depletion and sustainability – such as pollution, and the wasting of agricultural resources/inputs that are used to produce that food
Environmental pollution side effects might include greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector and rotting food waste in landfill, pollution from pesticides and fertilizers (run off, water pollution, etc), plastic pollution from plastic food packaging, and so on
The waste of agricultural resources and inputs arising from consumer level food waste might include water (especially irrigation from ground water supplies), cropland, energy, labor, capital, agricultural chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, and more
Solutions to reduce food waste and loss are wide ranging, but some solutions might be targeted to the biggest causes of loss/waste to maximize effectiveness
Solutions might also be directed at the stage in the food lifecycle where the most waste occurs, in the highest waste countries, and at specific high waste food groups
In developing countries, financial investment in farmers, and cold food and food storage technology might help i.e. the farming, processing, and transport stages
In developed countries, a change in food related expectations, behaviors and attitudes could help reduce food waste (especially in regards to preventable consumer and retail level food waste), as well as a lowering of aesthetic standards at the retail level, and better coordination in the supply chain.
Better understanding of food labels could help too. So, part of the focus in some countries might be towards the end of the food lifecycle stage
Fruits and vegetables as the most commonly wasted food could be targeted as a food group with the most potential for improvement to minimize waste
The US as a high food waste per capita nation could could be targeted as a country with the most potential for improvement in reducing food waste (along with other high waste nations)
It is estimated that enough food is produced in the world to feed everyone, but, food wasted in developed countries can’t get to the people who most need it.
And, a lot of food produced in countries where people go hungry ends up being exported to higher income countries where there ends up being a lot of food waste
Some estimates indicate that of all food wasted, only about a third is truly inedible, and that the current food wastage rate can be cut by about half
Solutions and goals related to minimizing food waste and loss should take this into account – how much food waste and loss can realistically be prevented, and how much food waste will inevitably be waste or lost because of hard limitations, or problems that are too difficult or costly to solve.
This is a similar situation to water waste and loss – there’s only a certain amount of recoverable water in the total amount of water we waste and lose in society every day.
So, we might focus on potentially recoverable food only
*It’s worth paying attention to what is counted as food loss and what isn’t.
For example, some numbers include food directed to livestock or to compost as food loss, but, directing food to these avenues can have benefits (which need to be taken into account).
Some theoretical steps to addressing food waste and loss might involve:
Identifying a specific country, and identifying how much food in total that country loses and wastes each year
Looking at the different stages of the food lifecycle, and breaking down loss and waste by total quantity and % share at each stage
Identifying the parties responsible for, and the reasons for food waste and loss at each stage
Identifying the types of foods lost and wasted the most
Identifying what % of what types of foods at each stage can be prevented from being lost or wasted, and what % can also be recovered or re-used for something else (such as composting or feeding animals). What % of food is unavoidable to waste or lose?
Implement goals and solutions at each stage based on the above
*Note – imported foods have to be taken into account, as well as foods produced and consumed locally.
Food Waste vs Food Loss – Difference
There is a difference between food waste and food loss.
We outline this difference in the definitions section below.
What Is Food Loss, & Food Waste? – Some Potential Definitions
The exact definitions of food loss and food waste can differ and can be situational.
But, general descriptions of each might be:
From worldvision.org … some definitions might include:
Food loss is “[a] decrease in quality or quantity of food …”.
Within that is food waste, defined as food fit for human consumption that is thrown out or used in other ways.
From Wikipedia.org … some definitions might include:
Food waste or food loss is food that is [either] discarded lost, [or] uneaten.
Precise definitions are … often defined on a situational basis
For example, the UN [has their own definitions] …
The decrease in quantity or quality of food.
Food loss in the production and distribution segments of the food supply chain is mainly a function of the food production and supply system or its institutional and legal framework.
… (which is a component of food loss) is any removal of food from the food supply chain which is or was at some point fit for human consumption, or which has spoiled or expired, mainly caused by economic behaviour, poor stock management or neglect.
… Food waste is a part of food loss, but the distinction between the two is not clearly defined
Also from Wikipedia.org … it should be identified what food is and isn’t counted in any stated food waste or loss number:
Food redirected to non-food chains (including animal feed, compost or recovery to bioenergy) is counted as food loss or waste.
Plants and animals produced for food contain ‘non-food parts’ which are not included in ‘food loss and waste’ (these inedible parts are sometimes referred to as ‘unavoidable food waste’
How Much Food Do We Waste Or Lose Every Day?
It varies depending on the country – some countries waste or lose more food than others per capita.
It can also depend on an individual’s diet and food habits as well.
High quality diets might be associated with more waste.
Some estimates are:
American households waste 150,000 tons of food each day – equal to a pound per person.
[this amount is] also equal to about a third of the daily calories that each American consumes
US consumers wasted 422 g – nearly one pound–of food per person per day from 2007–2014.
Nearly 26% of food was wasted by US consumers every day from 2007–2014.
… 30 million acres of cropland [were] used to produce this food every year.
This accounts for 30% of daily calories available for consumption, one-quarter of daily food (by weight) available for consumption, and 7% of annual cropland acreage.
… the exact amount of food we trash differs by how healthy your diet is … Higher quality diets were associated with higher levels of food waste
Between 2007-2014, consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food per day
How Much Food Do We Waste Or Lose A Year?
The amount of food wasted every year ranges in estimates – anywhere from one third up to one half of all food produced.
One source indicates the amount of food wasted annually could theoretically feed 2 billion people.
As mentioned elsewhere in this guide, the amount of food wasted or lost depends on the country – different countries have different waste rates – both for food loss, and food waste.
Some estimates are:
Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
Global food loss and waste amount to between one-third and one-half of all food produced.
As much as 50% of all food produced in the world ends up as waste every year …
As much as 2bn tonnes of food are wasted every year – equivalent to 50% of all food produced …
Globally, enough food is wasted every year to feed nearly 2 billion people a 2,100 kcal/day diet
Stages Of The Food Supply Lifecycle
There’s different stages to the food supply lifecycle, ranging from growing, through to consumers and consumer waste.
A detailed breakdown of the food lifecycle stages might be – growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, transporting again, storage, retail, consumption.
Generally, food loss or food waste is food that is lost during any of the four stages of the food supply chain: (1) growers, (2) processors, (3) retailers, and (4) consumers.
The different stages of food supply include Harvesting, Manufacturing, Distribution, Retail and Consumption
Causes Of Food Waste & Food Loss
The causes of food waste and food loss differ depending on the stage of the food lifecycle that the food is lost or wasted at.
In America in particular, some research suggests that uncertainty over, or lack of understanding of food labels and expiration dates is the leading cause of food waste at the retail stage.
In poorer countries (in terms of wealth), financial constraints, and factors like lack of protection of food goods on the way to market, or lack of cold storage and refrigeration, might be more of a major cause of food loss.
Some of the causes at each stage might include:
From wikipedia.org, some of the general causes at the different food stages might be:
After Crop Planting, & Before Harvest
[Pests, severe weather, temperature and precipitation that isn’t ideal for growing, and unpredictable conditions]
[Harvesting machinery picking up unripe crop or only part of the crop]
Economic factors … such as standards for quality and appearance – this is usually called culling … [and culling can also occur at the processing, production, retail and consumption stages]
Pests and micro organisms in storage – particularly in countries with higher heat and humidity
[Improper] Handling of food, and shrinkage or weight and volume of food
Post harvest and processing techniques that don’t sufficiently protect the food (in developing countries)
Food [not meeting food] safety standards [and being thrown out]
[*Note – food waste and loss at this stage can be difficult to estimate, so, reporting data might be assumed to be a guide only.
Also note, at the food processing level it’s difficult to reduce food waste and loss without affecting the quality of the finished food products.]
[Food without proper packaging can get damaged or lose freshness]
[Lack of understanding of, and uncertainty over food] labels and food expiration dates … [research] suggests that the leading cause of food waste in America is due to uncertainty over food expiration dates, such as confusion in deciphering best before, sell-by or use-by dates [and, better regulation and clearer understanding of labelling on packaging might fix this]
Retail stores throw away large quantities of food – [for various reasons such as being past it’s use by date, aesthetic reasons, etc] … stores have widely varying policies to handle excess food [that is thrown away or discarded].
Some stores donate or redistribute food, while others don’t, and this food gets wasted
Retailers also contribute to waste as a result of their contractual arrangements with suppliers – Failure to supply agreed quantities renders farmers or processors liable to have their contracts cancelled.
As a consequence, they plan to produce more than actually required to meet the contract, to have a margin of error.
Surplus production is often simply disposed of.
How food looks [i.e. it’s appearance and aesthetics] can lead to food waste in stores – [in part because of] USDA published guidelines for the appearance of different foods. Some foods are safe and edible, but don’t meet marketing or appearance standards …
The fish industry also contributes to the annual amount of food waste because of cosmetic standards that the fish are held up to – Approximately 40 to 60 percent of “all fish caught in Europe is discarded – either because they are the wrong size or species.” [Fish are also discarded in the US]
Consumers waste, throw out or simply don’t buy food that is [safe, but less aesthetically pleasing, such as food that comes in odd shapes and discolourations] or has a best-before date that is approaching or has passed, but is still perfectly fine to eat.
[People don’t store their food properly at home]
[People in wealthy countries simply don’t value food as much as people in less wealthy countries]
[Food groups like vegetables and fruits go off quicker, and become waste quicker]
… quality standards that over-emphasize appearance [is a cause of food waste in developed countries]
… lack of coordination between actors in the supply chain [is also] contributing factor [to food waste]
[In low income countries – lack of refrigeration, food getting squashed in storage methods like sacks, food spoiling due to poor packaging or no refrigeration … are all causes of food waste post harvest and before food can get to market]
In South Asia, for instance, half of all the cauliflower that’s grown is lost because there’s not enough refrigeration [and] lettuce spoils on the way from farms to city supermarkets.
Tomatoes get squished if they are packed into big sacks [instead of being packed into packaging or storage methods that protect them]
[Food is seen as precious in low income countries, whereas the attitude is completely different in some wealthy countries]
In low-income countries, most food loss happens due to limited harvesting capabilities, poor storage, or deficiencies in transportation, processing, or infrastructure.
In medium- and high-income countries, food loss more often happens at the consumer’s end — thrown out at the supermarket, restaurant, or at home.
[of all the food wasted or lost before it reaches the consumer … which is about 30 to 50% of all food produced … some of the reasons for this food being wasted or lost are] … unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practices”, inadequate infrastructure and poor storage facilities
Major supermarkets have also been blamed for food waste by rejecting crops of edible fruit and vegetables which don’t meet their exacting standards for their physical characteristics (such as size and colour).
Up to 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested due to this type of practice …
… just four of the 10 largest grocery chains in the US have specific food waste reduction commitments.
A further four out of the 10 don’t prevent the waste of food considered too cosmetically “imperfect” to sell.
Walmart achieved the highest grade, a B, while Aldi US was the worst. Trader Joe’s, Target and Whole Foods all did poorly, ranked with a D.
Where & How Do We Waste & Lose Food – At What Level Or Stage Of Food Production & Consumption?
Developing and developed countries might lose food at different stages of the food lifecycle.
Some of this has already been outlined above in this guide.
But, to re-hash …
It usually happens early on for developing countries (at farming, harvesting and on the way to market), and later on for developed countries (at the retail and consumer level – such as wasting food and throwing it out after buying or cooking).
In developing countries, it might happen more out of limitations and deficiencies, as well as financial constraints.
Whereas in developed countries, it might happen more out of choice, attitudes, high standards and poor co-ordination in the supply chain.
What is interesting is that one stage such as retail (due to contracts they have set up with farmers and food producers), can lead to waste in other stages such as at the farm stage.
A farm might allow a certain % of their crops to never be harvested or sent off to be processed because they know that food stock won’t meet aesthetic or quality standards in place by retailers.
The stages and the ways food is lost/wasted at those stages include:
[In developing countries …]
In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels
In developing countries food waste and losses occur mainly at early stages of the food value chain and can be traced back to financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as storage and cooling facilities.
[Developed and industrialized countries]
In industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.
In medium and high-income countries food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain.
Differing from the situation in developing countries, the behaviour of consumers plays a huge part in industrialized countries.
In [low income] countries, most of the food waste is on the farm or on its way to market
In wealthier countries like the US and Canada, around 40% of wasted food is thrown out by consumers
The food production and consumption stages from farm to plate are – agriculture, post harvest, processing, retail, and consumption.
By weight, the following %’s of food are wasted or lost at each stage in the following regions:
North America and Oceania – 33% (Agriculture), 11% (Post Harvest), 10 (Processing), 8 (Retail), 39 (Consumption)
Europe – 36%, 11%, 12%, 7%, 34%
Japan, Korea & China – 27%, 20%, 9%, 13%, 31%
North Africa, & West & Central Asia – 30%, 22%, 17%, 15%, 15%
Latin America – 40%, 22%, 15%, 12%, 11%
South & SouthEast Asia – 31%, 34%, 10%, 16%, 9%
Subsaharan Africa – 35%, 36%, 13%, 13%, 4%
Post-harvest and processing is where 40% of food wastage occurs in developing countries
Retail and wholesale accounts for about 5% of wastage.
But this is only what stores actually put in the bin themselves and does not take into account the influence they have on waste in other parts of the supply chain.
For example, they might reject the produce of a farmer or motivate consumers to buy more than they actually need.
A total of 40% of wastage in rich countries occurs at the household level.
People in these countries throw away 10 times more food compared to households in developing countries.
In low-income countries, most loss occurs during production
… in developed countries much food – about 100 kilograms (220 lb) per person per year – is wasted at the consumption stage.
In [developing countries] more than 40% of losses occur at the post harvest and processing stages
… in [developed countries] more than 40% of losses occur at the retail and consumer levels.
The IME estimate that 30-50% (1.2-2bn tonnes) of all food produced is “lost before reaching a human stomach” [i.e. before the consumption stage]
Loss and wastage occur at all stages of the food supply chain or value chain
Food Waste & Loss – Developing vs Developed Countries
Differences in developed vs developing country food waste and loss trends have been outlined reasonably in depth above in this guide.
But, what we can also see below are some additional stats.
Per capita food waste, per capita food production, and calories wasted per person are all much higher in industrialized countries on average.
In developed countries, some estimates show that 3 x as much calories are wasted compared to developing countries.
Some numbers of developed vs. developing countries and food waste and loss are:
Industrialized and developing countries dissipate roughly the same quantities of food — respectively 670 and 630 million tonnes.
Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kg a year.
Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions.
In developing countries, it is estimated that 400–500 calories per day per person are going to waste
… in developed countries 1,500 calories per day per person are wasted.
The total food waste by consumers in industrialized countries (222 million tonnes or 218,000,000 long tons or 245,000,000 short tons) is almost equal to the entire food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes or 226,000,000 long tons or 254,000,000 short tons).
[Wikipedia also has a table for food waste by region, and the different stages waste is created at. They also outline food waste of individual countries.]
What Foods Do We Waste Or Lose The Most, & Least?
Nuts and seeds, potatoes and mixed potato dishes, and table oils and salad dressing, might have the lowest waste rates.
‘High quality diets’ tend to have the highest waste rates.
Fruits and vegetables tend to have higher waste rates than grains, dairy and meat. Fish and seafood be waste in high rates in some instances.
One of the reasons for this is the perishability of fruits and vegetables, but there’s also other reasons such as people not wanting to buy fruits and vegetables that don’t look nice aesthetically, people not storing fruits and vegetables properly at home, people simply not valuing fruits and vegetables, and people being OK with throwing them out and buying new food when they need it.
Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food.
Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy plus 35% for fish.
Of 22 food groups studied, fruits, vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes (39 percent of total) were wasted most
… this is followed by dairy (17 percent), and meat and mixed meat dishes (14 percent).
In the US …
Higher quality diets [that include fruits and vegetables and that are health promoting, are wasted at the highest rates]
Fruits and vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes accounted for 39% of food waste, followed by dairy (17%), meat and mixed meat dishes (14%), and grains and grain mixed dishes (12%).
Remaining foods and dishes each accounted for less than 10% of total food waste: other foods and dishes (mostly candy, soft drinks, and other beverages), salty snacks, soup, potatoes and mixed potato dishes, nuts and seeds, Mexican dishes, eggs and mixed egg dishes, and table oils and salad dressing.
Soup, fruits and vegetables and mixed dishes, and other foods and dishes had the highest waste rate (approximately 30% each).
Nuts and seeds, potatoes and mixed potato dishes, and table oils and salad dressing had the lowest rates of food waste (12–18% each).
Over 800 kcal (795–840 kcal) were wasted per person per day, representing about 29% of total daily energy intake.
Almost half of all fruit and vegetables produced are wasted (that’s 3.7 trillion apples).
Globally, 45% of produced fruit and vegetables, roots and tubers are wasted. They are a highly perishable food group
Globally, 35% of harvested fish and seafood is wasted
Globally, 30% of produced cereals are wasted. The most produced cereals are corn, wheat and rice. Wheat and rice are the most consumed crops by humans in the world, as corn is used mainly as animal feed. Wheat in particular is found in an enormous range of foods, from bread to noodles, crackers and biscuits.
Globally, 20% of produced meat is wasted. Wasting meat is particularly troublesome because it is the most resource-intensive of foods. Not only is a lot of water and land thrown away with the meat, but also the life of an animal.
Globally, 20% of produced dairy products are wasted
Which Nutrients Do We Waste The Most?
From journals.plos.org … the nutrients that are wasted the most are:
Of all nutrients, carotenoids had the greatest percent waste (31%) and vitamin D had the lowest percent waste (25%).
How Much Money Does Food Waste & Loss Cost Us?
Estimates put the global annual cost of food waste at around $750 million to $1 trillion.
This figure does not include the costs of wasted resources or the cost of environmental problems caused by agriculture for wasted food either.
Some estimates add an additional $700 billion to the figure when accounting for environmental damage.
Food losses and waste amounts to roughly US $680 billion in industrialized countries and US$ 310 billion in developing countries.
The United States as a whole wastes more than $160 billion in food a year.
Dairy products account for the largest share of food wasted, about $91 billion.
One third of all food produced is lost or wasted – around 1.3 billion tonnes of food –costing the global economy close to $940 billion each year.
… one-third of the 4bn tonnes of food produced each year is wasted, costing the global economy nearly $750bn (£530bn) annually.
The [Australian] Government estimates food waste costs the Australian economy $20 billion each year.
750 billion – 1 trillion dollars are thrown away each year along with all the food we waste. That’s a huge amount of money!
But if we count the value of the environment that has been destroyed to make the food we throw away, then we can add an additional 700 billion dollars to the bill.
Food Waste & Loss By Country & Region
How Much Food Is Wasted Or Lost In The United States?
Roughly 30 to 40% of food produce is wasted in the US.
A small summary is provided below:
… the United States loses or wastes 133 billion pounds of food per year … That’s 31 percent of the country’s annual available food supply, or 429 pounds per person, per year.
Americans’ food loss was worth about $161.6 billion at retail prices in 2010 …
About 40% of all food produced in the USA is waste
Food waste has increased in the USA since 1974 – from 900 calories in 1974, to around 1400 calories today. That is 150,000,000,000,000 calories each year
2 Billion people could be fed for a year with the amount the USA throws away each year
In the USA, 12.7% of all reported waste is food scraps
Also in the USA – 60% of food is wasted at consumer level, 20% at production level and 20% at distribution level
How Much Food Is Wasted Or Lost In The UK?
The UK wastes a lot of food, but perhaps not as much as the US.
Roughly 30% of all purchased food is thrown away.
Some other numbers …
In the UK, consumers throw away ten million tonnes of food every year – and many millions of tonnes of that food could have been eaten.
[that’s] enough to save the average UK family £700 a year and provide six meals a week.
About 8.3 million tonnes of food is wasted by UK households every year
About 30.8% of all food purchased in the UK is thrown away
The UK pays for but does not eat up to 11.3 Billion pounds of good food each year. This is twice the amount the UK government spends on foreign economic aid
The average person throws away 70kg of food a year
The UK wastes 4.8 billion grapes, 2.6 billion slices of bread, 1.9 billion potatoes, 2.6 billion apples, 1 billion tomatoes, 775 million bread rolls, 440 million sausages, 200 million bacon rashers, 120 million meat meals, 282 million yoghurts, and 259 million chocolates and sweets
In the UK 1.2 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year in it’s packaging.
570 million UK pounds of whole and unopened fruit is thrown away each year, [along with 277 million for veg, and 333 million for unopened bakery goods]
How Much Food Is Wasted Or Lost In Australia?
Over 5 million tonnes of food ends up as landfill, enough to fill 9,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
One in five shopping bags end up in the bin = $3,800 worth of groceries per household each year.
35% of the average household bin is food waste.
Over 644,000 people now receive food relief each month, one third are children.
The average Australian throws away one in five grocery bags of food each week – that’s around $1000 of food thrown in the bin every year.
Environmental Effects Of Food Waste & Loss, & Wasted Resources
What some people don’t consider with food waste and loss is that there is both:
– An associated environmental impact
– and, a waste of inputs and agricultural resources used to produce the food.
Environmental side effects might include greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector and rotting food waste in landfill, pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, plastic pollution from plastic food packaging, and so on.
Waste of resources might include irrigated water, cropland, agricultural chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, and energy, labor and capital. Different food types can waste resources in different amounts.
There’s also the indirect use of resources like fossil fuels to run agricultural equipment, transport food, and so on.
More information on environmental side effects and wasted resources …
Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
… the volume of discarded food [in the US] is the equivalent to the yearly use of 30m acres of land, 780m pounds of pesticide and 4.2tn gallons of irrigated water.
Rotting food also clogs up landfills and releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Fruit and vegetables require less land to grow than than other foods, such as meat, but require a large amount of water and pesticides.
Researchers estimate that food waste corresponded with the use of 30 million acres of land (7 percent of total US cropland) and 4.2 trillion gallons of water annually.
Consumer food waste corresponded to harvests produced with the use of 780 million pounds of pesticide and 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, annually.
Healthier diets used less cropland than lower quality diets, but led to greater waste in irrigation water and pesticides, which are used at higher rates on average for growing fruits and vegetables
Food waste and loss has a huge carbon footprint: 3.3 billion tons of carbon equivalent
Wasting that much means a lot of water is wasted, too — the equivalent of three times the size of Lake Geneva
8% of greenhouse gases heating the planet are caused by food waste.
If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after USA and China.
Eliminating global food waste would save 4.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year, the equivalent of taking one in four cars off the road.
Throwing away one burger wastes the same amount of water as a 90-minute shower.
Australian foodservice businesses produce more than 250,000 tonnes of food waste every year, generating around 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalents) annually.
On average, cafes and restaurants bin 120g of every plate served, the equivalent of half a muffin or a small steak.
[Food waste and organic material in landfills can be a problem because of the conditions in a landfill]
In a worm farm or compost system, there’s a lot of aeration, which has a big impact on the process of breaking down food and so on, whereas in landfill it gets covered over.
In landfill, some of the gas it creates as the food starts to degrade is methane …
Food waste represents thousands and thousands of litres of wasted water from paddock to plate – for example, just 1kg of wasted beef equates to 50,000 litres of water going straight down the drain.
[Land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and energy (especially in machinery and transport) are all used in harvesting food]
[We also need to] package, protect and store food [with materials like plastic … and they have their own footprint]
[Landfills are not like composting – they contain anaerobic conditions due to a lack of oxygen]
[eatresponsibly.eu provides stats on water and land used in food production farming]
The carbon footprint of wasted food is 3.3 Gt of greenhouse gases annually. If all wasted food in the world was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the USA.
The publication entitled ‘Global food: waste not, want not’ also aims to highlight the wastage of energy, land and water.
Approximately 3.8tn cubic metres of water is used by humans annually with 70% being consumed by the global agriculture sector.
The amount of water wasted globally in growing crops that never reach the consumer is estimated at 550bn cubic metres.
Food waste in the USA accounts for … 1/4 of all freshwater consumption … [and] The consumption of 300 million barrels of oil a year
If we stop wasting food, the CO2 impact would be the equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road.
That’ll save 15 million tonnes of C02 equivalent in the UK
20% of the UK’s Greenhouse Gases are associated with food production, distribution and storage
In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, food scraps constitute around 19% of the waste dumped in landfills
Food which goes uneaten can account for vast quantities of water waste, with food waste being the largest area the average US citizen contributes to water waste.
Is There Enough Food Produced In The World To Feed Everyone? And, How Does Food Waste Impact World Hunger?
Yes – in terms of quantity, there’s enough food produced worldwide to feed the world population.
What Are Reasonable Goals For Reducing Food Waste? (Potential Targets To Aim For)
Some estimates indicate only about a third of food waste consists of truly inedible food, and the rest can be eaten.
We might be able to cut current food waste numbers in half.
Other numbers and estimates …
Some estimates by environmentreports.com:
About a third of food waste consists of truly inedible food, but the rest could have been eaten [so, we know that one third of food waste can’t realistically be saved]
Some studies indicate that we could reasonably cut current food waste rates by half, or from about 24 percent to 12 percent.
Halving food waste would also roughly halve its environmental impacts.
Estimates like these might help countries set reasonable goals for reducing realistic amounts or % of food waste.
Food Waste & Loss Solutions – What Can Be Done To Reduce Food Waste/Loss?
A goal we might start from for reducing food waste and loss might be:
– About a third of food wasted is inedible, and current food wasted might be able to be reasonably be cut half
This gives us a rough goal or target to aim for in terms of country wide or global food waste/loss reduction.
For businesses specifically, goodfood.com.au gives this rough target – ‘Food businesses may be able to reduce their food waste by up to 40%’
In any food waste/loss target or calculation – what food is and isn’t included in calculations, and the difference between locally produced, imported and exported food should be distinguished.
In terms of solutions – solutions might be looked at in categories, or by specific solutions and individual actions …
Looking at solutions in categories …:
– As a priority, focus on reducing food waste and loss in the countries with the highest total waste/loss amounts, and the highest waste/loss per capita rates.
Take into consideration the difference between developing and developed countries – causes and solutions will be different in each
– As a priority, within each country, focus on the organisations and individuals that waste or lose food the most – what farmers, food processors, retailers and consumers
– As a priority, in each country, focus on reducing food waste/loss at the stages of the food supply lifecycle where the most food is wasted or lost
– As a priority, address the biggest causes of food waste and loss first (reverse engineer causes to come up with solutions – such as cold storage and better packaging on the way from harvest to markets in developing countries)
– As a priority, focus first on the groups of food that are wasted in the highest amounts, or are wasted at the highest rates
– As a priority, identify the food that be recovered at the highest rates, or prevented from becoming food waste or lost food at the highest rates, and focus on recovery or prevention of these foods first, compared to truly inedible food, or food that is inevitably going to be wasted or lost
Looking at solutions in by specific solutions and individual actions …:
– Consider whether food waste reduction commitments for supermarkets, and how food aesthetic/cosmetic desires and requirements (that usually lead to food waste) can be addressed
– Consumers in wealthy countries need to change their attitude towards food – they need to value it more, and not devalue it (and subsequently throw it out or waste it) because it’s cheap and abundant
– Consumers can better plan their supermarket shopping and only buy what they know they will eat that week.
Consumers can also cut down on impulse buys of foods outside of foods they know they will definitely eat week to week (because it means other foods won’t get eaten).
Consumers can also stop throwing out leftovers, and eat leftovers the next day instead
– Consumers can order only what they know they will eat when they eat out at restaurants or eat-out stores
– Restaurants, take away stores and other similar food stores can change their food serving sizes, provide food leftover/take home bags for customers, and find ways to make use of their excess food or food waste/loss
– Consumers can either change their diet (the types of food they eat), or change their serving size (the size of each meal) to reduce food waste
– Focus on raising awareness about how consumers can better prepare, store and consume fruits and vegetables to cut down on waste.
Proper storage of other foods will help as well – cold storage and freezing, airtight containers and jars, etc.
– Better awareness and understanding of retailers and consumers on food labelling, best before/use by dates (and related expiration dates and labelling), and the differences between food abrasion and food spoilage.
Awareness might come from campaigns from advisory and environmental groups, and concentrated media attention.
Wikipedia.org notes that ‘The UK observed a 21% decrease in avoidable household food waste over the course of 5 years with consumer marketing and education on food waste’
– Retailers might be able to donate or redistribute food waste as long as it’s safe to do so, but it would also need to make financial sense, and they would have to be covered in terms of liability and risk by the law
– Better pest control at the farm level and in storage (especially in high heat and humidity countries)
– Grow food in locations that are better suited for agriculture
– Minimize harvesting pick up waste,
– Improve stock management,
– Consider tradeoffs between economic behavior and food waste
– Alleviate pre consumer stage financial, managerial and technical constraints
– Invest in regular storage, and cold storage technology in countries that need it
– Better protection of goods on the way to market or processing, and better handling of food
– More co-ordination in the supply chain, and improving institutional and legal framework for food supply
– Easing of cosmetic standards of food (and economic factors that push for higher standard for food quality and appearance)
– Improving contractual agreements between retailers and food producers that encourage surpluses and waste
– Find more ways and better ways to use food waste and lost food
– Be aware of food waste and loss reduction targets, and what food is actually recoverable and what food is inedible and unusable
– Consider how low waste food groups (that are also affordable and healthy) can be incorporated into diet
Other individual or specific solutions might include …
– In Developing Countries … Strengthening the supply chain through the direct support of farmers and investments in infrastructure, transportation, as well as in an expansion of the food and packaging industry could help to reduce the amount of food loss and waste (fao.org)
– In developed countries … consumers would need to change their attitude towards food, and make better efforts not to waste it, and value it more
– In developed countries … Farmer-buyer agreements can be helpful to increase the level of coordination [in the food supply chain] (fao.org)
– Raising awareness amongst industries, retailers and consumers about the issue of food waste, and how to reduce it
– Find useful ways to make alternate uses of food waste or loss, or donate or redistribute food that is to become food waste (such as from supermarkets).
Some of this may involve changes to laws that remove liability or risk to businesses
– Better funding for food recovery and wider use of composting, which is only available to about one in 10 Americans (theguardian.com)
– More research can be done on the relationship between food waste, diet quality, nutrient waste, and multiple measures of sustainability: use of cropland, irrigation water, pesticides, and fertilizers (journals.plos.org)
– … policy efforts [are] underway range from revising sell-by dates and labels for consistency, food planning and preparation education (sciencedaily.com)
– Food waste has social, environmental and economic aspects to it … rather than expecting big business to fix it, businesses and individuals need to help address it together (goodfood.com.au)
– [All people and organisations can be better] aware of [the] food waste pyramid – reduce waste, feed people in need, feed livestock, compost, bio fuel, and disposal of food (eatresponsibly.eu)
– Regulating food waste targets in legislation is an options (as is being pushed for in Europe), but it might have trade offs to consider
– [In developing countries] Some of the most basic fixes are at the bottom end of the supply chain: Metal grain silos have helped against fungus ruining grain stocks in countries in Africa.
In India, the F.A.O. is encouraging farmers to collect tomatoes in plastic crates instead of big sacks; they squish and rot less. (nytimes.com)
– Higher up the food chain, supermarkets [can change the way] best-before labels are used — making them specific to various food categories to discourage consumers from throwing out food that is safe to eat — or trying to sell misshapen fruits and vegetables rather than discarding them (nytimes.com)
– Cutting waste would have the same impact, if not more, than changing diets or what we eat (nytimes.com)
– Organisations like World Vision and the THRIVE program help farmers in Tanzania and other countries access improved seed varieties, fertilizers, and storage facilities … World Vision staff there teach farmers proven methods to increase crop yield … They help communities work together to more effectively move their products to market (worldvision.org)
– Smart packaging that indicates more clearly when the food is spoiled can be introduced (wikipedia.org)
– Commercial liquid food waste is a problem at the moment – if it can be treated, this is another form of waste that can be minimised (wikipedia.org)
For businesses specifically, goodfood.com.au gives these solutions to reducing food waste:
… more efficient preparation processes, reusing items typically thrown away, and ordering smaller amounts of fresh food more frequently
Majority of food waste is occurring out the front, on our plates. The solution to this is smaller portions or plate sizes, and businesses can charge less for the meal too
The most common things left on plates are those considered to be sides – things like chips, salad, garnish. We can minimize these things too
Businesses can give customers food leftover bags to take uneaten food home
Businesses are also becoming more proactive in dealing with waste with methods like composting and worm farms.
Some herbs and chillis can be grown on-site too
An alternative method of disposing of food waste is with a food waste dehydrator …
List Of Ways Food Waste Or Lost Food Can Be Redirected Or Re-Used
Farmers … can sometimes use crops that don’t come up to standard for animal feed or fertilizer [so, in this instance, food resources can be redirected instead of wasted or lost] (wikipedia.org)
Some stores that are left with excess food or food waste donate or redistribute this food, but some stores either don’t, or they can’t for legal reasons
Feed people in need, feed livestock, compost, bio fuel
As alternatives to landfill, food waste can be composted to produce soil and fertilizer (along with vermi-composting), fed to animals, or used to produce energy or fuel
Farmers can work with the government or other businesses [via initiatives and partnerships] to make use of surplus food
Food waste and organic waste can be separated in municipal waste collection, and disposed of in a beneficial way
It is estimated that one business can save up to $30,000 annually on garbage disposal costs with the implementation of the required composting
Limitations & Tradeoffs To Reducing Food Waste & Loss
There might be some built in hard limitations on how much food waste can be reduced.
– For example – at the food processing level it’s difficult to reduce food waste and loss without affecting the quality of the finished food products
– In the above example, there’s the tradeoff – Do you want less food waste, or lower quality food products on offer at supermarkets?
– Another tradeoff might be between food waste, and the quality of an individual’s food diet.
Low quality diets may produce less food waste, but they come with a range of negative impacts like low nutritional value and higher rates of cropland wasted – so food waste solutions must focus on higher food quality and less waste (sciencedaily.com)
– As identified by theguardian.com, there can also be tradeoffs between food quality, food waste and food safety [at various food supply lifecycle stages]
Food Waste Stats
We’ve listed different stats in the guide above.
But, we may come back and update this section if we find any more relevant stats in the future, such as food waste trends that develop in the future.