Publication: Food Waste Along the Food Chain

Reducing food losses and food waste is attracting growing public attention at the international, regional, and national levels, and is widely acknowledged to contribute to abating interlinked sustainability challenges such as food security, climate change, and water shortage. However, the pattern and scale of food waste throughout the supply chain remains poorly understood, despite growing media coverage and public concerns in recent years. This paper takes stock of available data on food waste and explores policies related to food waste in OECD countries.

Why reduce food waste?

Food waste is seen as an obstacle to achieving food and nutrition security for the millions of undernourished around the world. Furthermore most societies attach an ethical and moral dimension to food waste.

Although, reducing food waste in medium and high income countries may not directly help tackle food insecurity in low income countries, it reduces competition on limited water, land and biodiversity resources; making these resources available for other uses. Edible food that would otherwise be wasted could be redistributed to food insecure populations in local communities in medium and high income countries, and in low income countries alike.

The consumption of water resources and land used for the production of uneaten food remains a challenge to the environment. Food waste is also a major component of waste going into municipal landfills, a significant source of methane. According to the FAO report in 2013,food that is produced but not eaten is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere that makes up food wastage as the third top emitter after the United States and China(FAO, 2013).

Another incentive is economic. Reducing food waste can increase the efficiency of the food supply chain and bring economic benefits, including lower costs for businesses and lower prices for consumers. Business examples exist where innovative production methods turned what would have otherwise been wasted into inputs to new products.

In other cases, the food manufacturing industry or the retail sector is prepared to pay for the removal of surplus food that would be otherwise wasted. New businesses are created that collect, handle and deliver this surplus to food banks. Social innovation plays an important role in initiating such social economy businesses. The importance of reducing food waste in order to increase the efficiency of the food supply chain from the social, environmental and economic points of view was repeatedly raised by participants in the OECD Food Chain Analysis Network in June 2013.

municipal solid waste, grain storage, food value chain, policy information, agricultural losses, food waste, data, food waste reduction, food loss
JEL Classification:
  • Q18: Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics / Agriculture / Agricultural Policy; Food Policy
  • Q53: Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics / Environmental Economics / Air Pollution; Water Pollution; Noise; Hazardous Waste; Solid Waste; Recycling
  • Q58: Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics / Environmental Economics / Government Policy

Click to Access: 

Bagherzadeh, M., M. Inamura and H. Jeong (2014), “Food Waste Along the Food Chain”, OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Papers, No. 71, OECD Publishing, Paris.


Why differentiating between food loss & food waste matters

Food loss or food waste? Anything but the same, says FAO agri-food economist Stjepan Tanic

FAO agri-food economist Stjepan Tanic walks through the fundamentals: the difference between food loss and food waste, and why it matters for Europe and Central Asia.

Photo:  ©FAO / Louis Wheatley

Food loss and food waste sound like synonyms. What’s the difference?

Imagine how everything we eat travels across a food chain, a complex journey that stretches from farm to fork. FAO studies show that an astounding one third of all the food we produce for human consumption never actually reaches a fork. Whether we categorize uneaten food as “lost” or “wasted” depends on when it falls off the food chain.

Most people have seen food waste in their everyday lives. At the end of the food chain, consumers may throw out excess food, let it spoil, or develop other behaviors that waste food unnecessarily. Food “loss” actually occurs earlier in the food chain and usually behind the scenes. Due to inefficiencies in food production and processing, food can lose nutritional value or even need to be discarded before it reaches the consumer. Both cases are considered food loss.

Look at it this way: more than 40 percent of food losses and waste in developing countries occurs at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in industrialized countries, more than 40 percent of food losses and waste occur at retail and consumer levels.  Understanding when food loss or waste occurs is important because it affects how we build more sustainable food systems.

So you’re not just splitting hairs.

No. In fact, you can actually see the difference across Europe and Central Asia. In general, the European Union and other high-income countries in the region have significantly greater levels of food waste. These countries are launching consumer awareness campaigns and other initiatives to reduce food waste.

Middle- and low-income countries aren’t wasting nearly as much food – in part due to lower supply, lower purchasing power, and less demanding food quality preferences. Instead, they struggle predominantly with food loss issues.

So what are the weak spots in our region’s food value chains?

Farmers and processers are using outdated machinery and technologies, and food production systems remain unorganized and fragmented. The lack of access to specialized equipment for transportation, processing, cooling and storage only adds to the extensive food loss at the harvest, post-harvest and storage stages of the food supply chain.

The private sector has the potential to introduce technologies and practices needed to improve the efficiency of food supply chains and minimize food loss. But in order to promote investment in food loss and waste reduction ventures, governments first need to create stable, low-risk business environments with transparent and consistent regulations.

Policymakers may also consider developing programs that support producer organizations like cooperatives. Encouraging small-scale farmers to cooperate can increase their access to credit and help them deliver their product to new markets as efficiently as possible.

What can Europe and Central Asia do to solve this problem?

Ending consumer food waste in high-income countries doesn’t mean people in low-income countries will suddenly have more to eat. But reducing both loss and waste can increase incomes and improve access to food for vulnerable groups and in at-risk regions.

We can also eliminate the deep environmental footprint of food loss and waste. Every year, the world uses a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River – and adds 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere – just to produce the food that we never eat.

Whether you’re counting kilograms, euros or calories, the threat of food loss and waste is clear and leaders in Europe and Central Asia are intent on making progress. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has addressed this issue and the European Parliament has called for member states to reduce losses and waste by 50 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, FAO will continue to support regional efforts in this arena through the global SAVE FOOD initiative.

09 February, 2015, Budapest, Hungary

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Food loss is the blindspot in our fight against hunger

But we already knew that, right?

Food loss is and can be both voluntary and involuntary, meaning we either cause it knowingly or circumstances that we live in mean that we lose food to climate change or back luck, yes, there is something like bad luck in farming too

Food loss/food waste is the blindspot in our fight against hunger, and farmers in the developing world experience food loss through post harvest handling. Poor handling and lack of proper storage means that most food is wasted even before it gets to the market. Supposedly, a whooping 64% of food is lost before it gets to market despite the fact that technological solutions are available. This is both tragic and unnecessary. Technological solutions? are these evenly distributed, who can afford these solutions especially if they are electronic, and are there cheaper solutions?

Men harvest rice in Nanan, Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast

The global food system already produces enough food for everyone. But 24% of all calories destined for human consumption never end up in tummies, according to the World Resources Institute. In the developing world 64% of food is lost before it is processed or transported to markets. In sub-Saharan Africa alone this costs farms $4bn a year. In a world where 800 million people are undernourished this is both tragic and unnecessary.

Rich countries waste food, while poor countries lose it. In Africa politics, policies, and climate change all affect food production and availability, where periodic droughts and political upheavals have left millions hungry. These are long-term problems that will require long-term solutions. But there are concrete steps we can take right now to bolster Africa’s food security, starting with proven technological interventions.

Basic solar-powered processing equipment can be transformative. Every day in markets across Africa fruits wilt and rots under the blazing sun. That same sun can power a cold room or a mango juice plant owned and staffed vendors.

At Malo, a social enterprise founded to mill, fortify and market rice cultivated by local smallholder farmers in Mali, we are looking at proposals to use solar energy to power equipment which could reduce food loss. Elsewhere in Mali, cattle farmers are using solar energy to power refrigerators to store their milk.

Given that the biggest food losses occur on farms, this is where we should begin to solve the problem. For subsistence farmers, support and advice from farmer education services and farming cooperatives improves their ability to withstand economic and climate shocks and maximize their potential.

New and existing cooperatives need to make modern harvesting tools and robust crop disease and pest management systems standard offerings for their members. These improvements would bolster traditional benefits of cooperatives, such as reducing input costs, increasing market access, and obtaining more favorable credit terms.

For commercial farms, regardless of size, putting trained and motivated employees on the team is essential. However, finding qualified workers is a challenge that needs to be overcome.

Creating schools and incubators with curricula and programmes that educate farm workers, farm managers, and farm owners can both address the challenge of ensuring universal education while providing career opportunities for young people. A better educated farm workforce would be better able to prevent or mitigate food loss whether it is by identifying crop diseases early and knowing how to treat them or planning and executing appropriate logistics and distribution operations.

To be sure, tackling the issue of food loss is costly, complex and requires more than just training farm workers and leveraging solar energy. With a growing middle class in Africa, it is essential that the food saved by modernising supply chains doesn’t end up in being thrown away by businesses and consumers, whose consumption habits often mimic those of the developed world.

As soon as that begins to happen we must work to reduce grocery and household food waste. We should investigate the potential of Fenugreen’s Fresh Paper, a spice-infused paper said to increase the shelf life of produce.

Taken together, small improvements at farms and in the kitchen can achieve real results and cut food waste and food loss across the developing world.

Increasing yields and bringing more land under cultivation will remain important to feeding a growing population. But ensuring we eat everything we already grow could quickly reduce the burden we place on our planet as we figure out longer term strategies for coping with climate change and other food security threats.

As 2015 approaches and world leaders begin to think about how to implement the sustainable development goals on hunger, they could do much worse than adopt this mantra: to feed the world tomorrow, let’s eat what we grow today.

Initiatives to combat food wastage: a waste of time?

Vanessa Nigten    | July 18, 2014

The recently published F&BKP report on food wastage shows that a significant decline in food wastage will not automatically improve food security. There may be a positive impact on resource efficiency and general food availability in the long term but aspects such as food access, utilization and stability in developing countries will not improve at the same time.

Less food wastage, less hunger

The European Parliament has designated 2014 as the European Year against Food Waste. And these Western public representatives are not the only ones that have recently picked up the theme. Worldwide initiatives on food wastage by organizations, enterprises and governments are mushrooming and the Netherlands is no exception: a recent study on this theme conducted within the Dutch Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP) alone maps 40 of the many activities in which the country is involved.

Many of these initiatives claim to help eradicate worldwide hunger by reducing wastage. The European Parliament, for example, says in a resolution against food wastage “reducing food waste is a significant preliminary step in combating hunger in the world”. In a reaction to a report earlier this year, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim also suggested a direct link between food wastage and hunger, saying “millions of people around the world go to bed hungry every night, and yet millions of tons of food end up in trash cans or spoiled on the way to market”. In a similar vein, the website of a congress organized by the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs says “there are nearly one billion malnourished people in the world. These people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.”. And Gerda Verburg, the Dutch Permanent Representative to FAO, IFAD and WFP tweeted last year: “total loss and waste of food is enough to feed all the world’s hungry four times over!”.

If only it were that simple

This all sounds perfect: it would be easy to think that we have finally found a concrete and feel-good way to make short work of ending worldwide hunger. Yet, is it feasible to live up to all these claims? The F&BKP study also explored what we know about the relationship between wastage interventions and food security, in particular in poor countries. Despite the limited number of studies that seem to exist, some conclusions can be drawn.

One is that, even though the reduction of wastage in Western countries would theoretically result in increased overall availability of food to individuals, it is unclear how and to what extent this will reach poor people. In any case, claims about the direct effects of reducing waste in the West on food security often prove not to be realized. This specifically counts for food supplies, livelihoods and food prices in developing countries. Producers who cut food losses may in the short term even face significant additional costs resulting from their reduction measures and the increased use of energy to preserve their food products. The only study that has systematically researched the concrete effects on food security is by M. Rutten and Y. Waarts of Wageningen University. It shows that a 40% reduction in waste during retail and consumption in the EU would, in the medium-long term, lead to a very small but positive increase in food consumption (0,04%) and a decrease in food prices (0,2%) in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Donating food residues to people in need has shown positive effects in the short term, but this does not relate to transfers from Western to developing countries. Moreover, it tends to lead to problems of stigmatization of recipients, a gap between acquisition and demand, legal requirements regarding liability and market saturation.

On the other hand, activities to reduce pre- and post-harvest losses, such as technical solutions in agro-logistics, do sometimes show a direct impact on short-term food security in developing countries, and especially on the availability of food. This nevertheless depends heavily on circumstances like the potential of a viable business case, storage facilities, infrastructure, means of transport, market access and an enabling political and institutional environment. Interventions at local level in smallholder agriculture, like providing silos or protection against rodents, have shown positive effects on food availability in certain contexts (silos are a notable success in Central America, but not to the same extent in Africa). To a lesser extent, such interventions also deliver an impact on other aspects of food security, including access, utilization and the stability of the food system.

However, in the longer term, there is ample reason to believe that reducing and reusing wastage may indeed have a positive impact on resource efficiency, the environment and consequently, general food security. Yet the effects, in particular those in developing countries, depend on what the saved resources will be used for instead, on aspects in the value chain like marketing strategies and communication, and on the place of the intervention in the value chain. As approximately ten times more food per capita food is wasted in developed than in developing countries, waste-reduction interventions there might have greater impact.

Should we then simply waste our food?

Despite a lack of proven, specifically direct, effects on food access in developing countries, reducing food wastage – post-harvest, in the distribution or processing stage of the food chain, or at the consumer level – is not a bad thing. In the long term it will often contribute to general food security, notably through positive effects on the environment. However, improving access to food, mainly for the poor and in the short term, calls for a more context-specific approach that addresses the value chain and food system as a whole.

This post was first published at by Vanessa Nigten, a knowledge broker at the Office of the Dutch Food and Business Knowledge Platform.