Just how much of global food production are we wasting annually?

It’s a simple question, but a complex topic, and the answer is, it depends.  Are we talking about food loss, food waste, or both together?  And what elements of each?  In what sectors? 

A newly released report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food Waste Index Report 2021, provides a wealth of important new information on the food waste component, while at the same time reminding us of the criticality of terminology to avoid misunderstanding.  Words and definitions matter, especially regarding research and conversations on global food loss and waste – and without continued focus and sharp messaging we risk confusing stakeholders despite opposite intentions.

For quick background, we use a lot of terms in this area, such as food loss, food waste, food wastage, excess food, excess edible food, edible parts, inedible parts, and more.  And we can go further and distinguish between food waste reduction and food waste prevention, and recovery and diversion.

Generally, we get more specific when delving deeper into causes of food loss and food waste in seeking to develop effective, targeted solutions for them.  We typically use the term “food loss” to denote the amount of annual food production that goes to waste (i.e. food that is not consumed by humans) between farm and market.  Often this is discussed with a focus on less developed countries, where food is lost after harvest due to inadequate storage facilities and/or poor transportation infrastructure.  To some degree this definition implies that the loss of food was beyond the control of relevant stakeholders (i.e. it was unintentional). 

Similarly, we often speak of “food waste” with a focus on developed countries, where much food is wasted after it reaches the market – in consumer-facing businesses (ex. supermarkets, distributors, foodservice operators and restaurants) and/or in the homes of consumers.  There’s a greater element of responsibility here, with a connotation that the waste of the food could have been avoided as a result of different actions or behavior on the part of consumers. 

Some use the term “food wastage” to denote food loss and food waste together, while others often simply use the term “food waste” when speaking of the combined figure. 

And additional terms come into play when researching and measuring food loss and waste to differentiate between edible and inedible food components.

All of these terms matter, especially with regard to measurement, because the clearer we can be about 1) how much food loss and waste occurs throughout the food supply chain, 2) where it occurs, and 3) why it occurs – the better we can be at devising interventions and longer-term solutions while also measuring and reporting on progress (or lack thereof).

Stepping up a level

It’s also important to communicate accurate, high-level measures on food loss and waste (including a combined figure) to global citizens and policymakers in order to continue to advance the progress on food waste reduction efforts over the last decade, and more importantly, to rapidly accelerate national and global plans and actions designed to achieve the Target 12.3 goal of halving global food loss and waste by 2030. 

In many ways, the world has awakened to the gravity of the global food waste challenge, anchored by a seminal report from FAO in 2011 that estimated that roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted across the globe, about 1.3 billion tonnes annually.  Other reports suggest higher figures, but the world has largely coalesced around a figure of 33% of annual food production being lost or wasted.

On the plus side, high concern over the scale of that level of wastage, coupled with widespread global hunger and the extreme environmental and social externalities associated with food loss and waste, led to the creation of a specific SDG target related to food waste reduction as well as recognition that fixing the food system requires fixing food waste.

On the negative side, the widely cited 33% figure is so large that it can seem daunting to many individuals, leaving them feeling powerless as to what they as individuals can due to impact it. And if they feel powerless, they are unlikely to act.

Both reactions are important.  There is no question that the world must come together to cut food loss and waste with urgency, and at the same time, we must connect with individuals (particularly in developed countries) such that they place a higher value on food – changing behavior to waste less, influencing others to do the same, and raising expectations for responsible behavior among food organizations. 

In essence, we need to transition from our current developed-world culture of abundance which creates excessive waste to a culture of responsibility which wastes much less.  And at the same time, we must address food losses – especially in less developed regions — through the transfer of knowledge, tools, technology and financing.

New findings, new messaging

In the continued quest for greater accuracy to guide research, measurement and interventions, FAO and UNEP have been working on two new indices – the Food Loss Index and the Food Waste Index – to update the “one-third” finding of the previously-mentioned FAO report. 

The new UNEP report reflects what the authors note is “the most comprehensive food waste data collection, analysis and modelling effort” to this point.  By combining estimates of food waste for every country in the world (including estimates based on extrapolations for countries without primary data), the authors determined that 931 million tonnes of available food were wasted in 2019 across the three sectors studied (61% of that waste stemmed from households, while 26% stemmed from food service operations and 13% came from the retail sector). 

Significantly, that leads to a new estimate for global food waste of 17%.

The report included several other key findings:

  • Household per capita food waste was found to be similar across country income groups; significant in that it challenges the notion that food waste in the home is largely a developed world problem (and suggesting the need for further study of household food waste in lower income countries)
  • Global food waste at the consumer level could be significantly higher than prior estimates (perhaps twice as high)
  • Additional data is needed on the level of edible versus inedible food across country groups to guide food waste reduction and diversion interventions

So the report has indeed created valuable new learnings while laying the foundation for more detailed measurement across countries to more effectively shape national strategies and policy interventions to advance progress toward Target 12.3.

And now we come back to the importance of terminology, and why it is important to clarify messaging related to the reported 17% figure for global food waste. 

Unfortunately, it may be easy for many global citizens to view the new 17% figure in an overly positive light, because most individuals are now accustomed to a 33% figure for global food waste (even though many are unaware of the combined loss and waste nature of that figure).   

For example, shortly after the release of the new report, I was asked if the level of global food waste had suddenly been found to be half the amount of prior estimates.  Further, in a subsequent call, a speaker casually used the 17% figure while seemingly referring to food loss and waste together.  And headlines that once mentioned “one third of food going to waste” now have been replaced with “one fifth.”  They may be more accurate in terms of “food waste” alone, but it is likely that many of the writers (and millions of readers) lack the in-depth understanding of the difference.

And, significantly, while the release of the new 17% food waste figure may inadvertently convey a decline in the minds of some, the report notes that prior estimates of consumer food waste may be significantly understated.  In fact, as noted above, food waste at the consumer level may be twice as high as prior estimates.

So what seems like less could in fact be more.

Thinking deeper, one might quickly gravitate to the idea of adding the new 17% food waste figure from the Food Waste Index report to the 14% food loss figure (from FAO’s 2019 report, The State of Food and Agriculture: Moving Forward on Food Loss and Waste Reduction) in order to come to a new combined figure for global food loss and waste.  Doing so would yield a figure of 31%, which on the surface might make sense compared to the traditional one-third (i.e. 33%) combined estimate.    

But such a compilation isn’t accurate, and as report co-author Hamish Forbes noted, the team is not encouraging it due to differences in the composition of the two figures (i.e. it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison).  As the report states, there are scope differences – the food loss index (FLI) includes losses for “multiple utilizations” of food (i.e. food, feed, seed, and others), while the food waste index (FWI) focuses on consumer food waste (i.e. final food products exclusive of animal feed and seed).  Further, there are differences in the definitions of the two estimates – the FWI includes inedible parts, while the FLI focuses only on edible parts.

Ideally, we would be able to combine the two indicators, and FAO and UNEP are working on developing such a clean summation of food loss and waste.  Doing so will provide a new and consistent reference point to guide the global conversation on food loss and waste, essentially replacing the 33% frame that most individuals had centered upon.

Action from clarity

In the interim, despite the need for messaging on the twin components of food loss and waste (essentially to avoid an incorrect re-set to 17% as a combined figure in the minds of many), there are many positives to draw on from the new Food Waste Index.  The report:

  • Provides a new, more accurate estimate of global food waste at the consumer level
  • Shows that consumer food waste is likely much higher than previously estimated
  • Indicates that consumer food waste at lower income levels warrants further study
  • Reinforces the importance of, and need for, accurate measurement of food loss and waste
  • Reflects the importance of getting increasingly granular to maximize the effectiveness of policy interventions
  • Prompts countries to develop national food loss and waste reduction strategies
  • Lays the foundation for an updated combined global food loss and waste figure
  • Highlights some data gaps for further research

There is an important timing element here as well, in my opinion.  I believe the new report can provide a spark to re-energize food loss and waste reduction efforts globally following a challenging pandemic year which seemed to derail the momentum with which we entered this critical Decade of Action. 

Moreover, the future release of a new combined metric, perhaps with a term (food wastage?) that clearly denotes the summation of food loss and food waste components can, in my view, provide a new centering point for 1) education on the scale and impact of global food loss and waste, 2) heightened commitment for policy interventions and national reduction strategies to reduce food loss and waste, and 3) a heightened level of meaningful collaboration between nations to address food loss and waste with a focus on achieving the 50% reduction goal by 2030.

After all, food loss and waste isn’t a problem unique to specific nations, it is truly a global problem with massive hunger, health, climate, and security implications.  And while it is too early to predict, my bet is that if consumer food waste (which as the original ReFED report indicated is such a large portion of food waste in developed countries like the U.S.) is significantly higher than previously estimated, it is likely that the new combined figure for global food loss and waste will be higher than the prior 33% estimate. 

In any case, as Hamish Forbes noted, one big takeaway from the report involves the notion of agency.  As consumers, we can all take actions to reduce the amount of food we waste.  The better we understand where and how we contribute to food waste, the better we can change our behavior.  And that’s important, because as WRAP noted in this recent post, the “unpalatable truth about food waste” is that it is “everywhere.” 

So let’s look forward to the future release of a combined figure for global food loss and waste from FAO and UNEP. 

And in the interim, let’s all be clear on terminology, and caution fellow stakeholders that the combined level of global food loss and waste didn’t suddenly get much better.

2030, the date by which the world seeks to cut global food waste in half, is just nine years off. 

We all still have a lot of hard, necessary, rewarding work to do on food loss and waste reduction.

*Thanks to Richard Swannell and Hamish Forbes of WRAP for informative exchanges regarding the Food Waste Index report.