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Farmers and processers are using outdated machinery and technologies, and food production systems remain unorganized and fragmented.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

find out more: http://www.fao.org/


JOIN THE DISCUSSION: How sustainable is your food supply chain?

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Consumers around the world are expressing high expectations for the quality of products they consume. More than at any other point in history, we prefer goods produced in an ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion.

Young people are increasingly likely to consider the “social and environmental ethics of brands”.  While consumers demand these standards, actual implementation of environmentally and socially ethical practices in remains obscured to the lack of transparency and accountability in supply chains.

One great example of this is food. We all need it, we eat it, and some of us instagram it. Food comes from the earth, from plants and animals, then we harvest it.  Agriculture supply chains have a huge impact on landscapes, from the sourcing of plants and animals to the communities who directly rely on them.  How did your breakfast get to your plate?  And how do you know if your breakfast helped or hindered the people who harvested it? .

Our names are Benjamin, Hannah and Wen-Yu and at the Global Landscapes Forum youth session, we will run a workshop to discuss various aspects of green economy while sharing our different backgrounds and experiences. We want you to start the conversation with us by commenting at the end of the blogpost on a number of questions focusing on global supply chains, and the impacts of supply chains on landscapes around the world.

Supply chains have a great role to play in establishing a more sustainable global economy, and we hope our discussion will recognize the various opportunities to adapt supply chain management practices. We will consider and explore how supply chains can become more responsible, transparent and sustainable, as well as how supply chains shape global landscapes.

Despite the demand for ethically sourced food, foreign aid, or non-profit support, for agricultural producers is dwindling, leaving producers and exports searching for funding. In some nations, agriculture supply chains drive deforestation and create “environmental refugees”.  In 1995, for example, Bhola Island in Bangladesh was submerged in water, leaving 500,000 people homeless.

Agricultural technologies and innovation could be at the forefront to sustainable economic improvements; the World Bank confirms this vision through its estimate that economic growth in the agricultural sector is likely to be twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors of the economy. How the global community goes about strengthening agricultural value chains, is therefore a crucial question in the campaign against global poverty. We look to the private sector for support.

The global agri-food industry is truly connected. In a recent study published by the OECD, authors used the example of Nutella to highlight a truly sophisticated picture of global supply chains in the agri-food industry. Although headquartered in Italy, Ferrero International’s (Nutella’s) choice of key ingredients in the beloved hazelnut spread is sourced from all around the world: “while certain inputs are supplied locally—like, say, the plastic for the bottles or milk—many others are shipped from all over the world. The hazelnuts are from Turkey; the palm oil is from Malaysia; the cocoa is from Nigeria; the sugar is from either Brazil or Europe; and the vanilla flavoring is from France.”

Companies have a tremendously wide range of choices when it comes to suppliers. So why choose a social and environmentally responsible supplier? Ethical supply chains can be efficient and cost effective, and we believe businesses should not take advantage of these responsible practices for their marketing appeal.

PUMA, for example, has created its own accountability reporting system, called the Environmental Profit and Loss Account.  This push to sourcing transparency has allowed PUMA to examine their supply chain and eliminate waste while promoting biodiversity, saving roughly €145 million in 2010.  This suggests that corporate practices are trending toward ethical sourcing, but the key to creating sustainable supply chains remains with the consumer.

At the Global Landscapes Forum, Wen-Yu will pitch an idea to a panel of policy makers, scientists, and private sector representatives that will consist of realistic recommendations for different actors involved in global supply chain management – governments, corporations (whether it be local companies or multi-national corporations) and individual consumers. She will focus on how to nurture the positive attributes of supply chains, while mitigating impacts on the landscape level.

As a global citizen, we need to recognize the importance of our own choices.  We can change the way products are sourced by starting a conversation about supply chains, sourcing, and responsible business practices. We want to hear what you think about the future of our globalized economy. Answer one of these questions by commenting at the bottom of this article:

  1. How can an individual take steps to consume products that are socially and ethically responsible? What do you perceive are the benefits to choosing ethically sourced products?
  2. “Can you describe any resource sourcing or supply chain issues in your community?  How would you address those issues if you were responsible for landscape management?”
  3. What projects or campaigns have you heard of or participated in that have seen a positive outcome in the theme of a) green supply chains or b) sustainable agriculture? How did the campaigns achieve this outcome?