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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds One of the most powerful and immediate ways to reduce the impact of food systems on natural resources is to consider food loss and waste and how we can reduce those. It’s important to differentiate food loss from food waste. Food loss is generally thought to include that that’s lost up to the point of the farm gate. That is in the field, in the food store, etc. Whereas food waste is generally meant to mean that that’s already been purchased and is thrown away or not consumed for whatever reason. So where in the food system do we find food loss and food waste?

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds Well, across all food system activities, the question is– who is creating it, who is responsible for it, and what do we do about it? There are other relationships to think about when considering food loss and waste. We need to consider who bears the cost. Are there winners and losers in reducing food loss and waste? There are overall societal benefits, but different sectors and different food system activities would view that differently. Food loss and waste occurs throughout the food system, but in different parts of the world, different areas are more important.

Skip to 1 minute and 26 seconds For instance, in Europe, in North America, in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, there’s a relatively higher proportion of food wasted post-purchase than in developing parts of the world. Whereas in developing parts of the world, there is more food loss due to agronomic reasons or lost in farm storage. Very little is wasted post-purchase. In the UK, as an example, we have something like four a half million tonnes of food a year is wasted. That is, it is purchased by us, the purchasers, the customers, and we don’t eat it. In the bakery sector alone, there’s something approaching 700,000 tonnes of product wasted every year.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 seconds And that’s often largely from bread packs that are opened and not finished and then discarded because they are deemed stale. Obviously, there is a tremendous opportunity to reduce the amount of food lost and wasted and that will significantly reduce the pressure on the natural resource base. Satisfying the future demand for food while maintaining our natural resource base is a major challenge. On one hand, there’s a strong argument to increase production to meet demand and satisfy need. That demand is going to grow as population grows and wealth increases. Diets will change. The other way of thinking about this is how to better manage that demand so that we’re not actually putting such pressure on the natural resource base to deliver food.

Skip to 3 minutes and 10 seconds So let’s consider a plausible way forward for our consumption of cereals. The edible cereal harvest in 2014 was 3,150 calories per person per day. Of that, we lost about 15% on farm due to pests and diseases, but also due to poor storage. We’ve also seen how we feed about a third to animals and about a fifth goes to biofuel. After we’ve lost a final 15% in the food chain, we see we have a figure about 850 calories per person per day available for human consumption. If we look ahead 10 years, we will see a reduction in per person calorie a day due to population increase. Assuming yields and productivity do not increase in line.

Skip to 4 minutes and 14 seconds If we were to reduce the food lost on farm by only a third, we see we have 2,400 calories per person per day. If we were to reduce the amount of cereals we feed to animals by perhaps two-thirds, not completely, but by two-thirds, we would see we have still 2,125 calories per person per day. If we were to reduce by about half only, the amount of cereal going in to biofuel and other industrial processes. And if we were to reduce by about half, the amount lost in food chain, we would end up with something like 1,700 calories per person per day, even though we started with less.

Skip to 5 minutes and 8 seconds So the message here is that by thinking along the whole food system, we can see how to make some plausible reductions. Each has got political, economic challenges. Technical challenges are relatively straightforward. But if we can sort out the political and economic cultural environments which are dictating how these activities are undertaken, we can see a number of very plausible ways forward of reducing the pressure on the natural environment due to having a reduced demand for cereal.

Reducing food loss and waste

Changes in existing practices can go a long way toward increasing the availability of food. In this video, Dr. John Ingram, of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, talks about how reductions in food loss and waste alone can greatly increase the calories obtained from existing production.

While methods for achieving these benchmarks are varied, we can imagine how innovative practices and technologies combining with behavioural changes on the farm, at the market, and in the home could get us most of the way there.


If we dig a bit deeper, more questions arise when thinking about innovation, be it technological or behavioural: What are some ways to drive innovation? Where does the motivation for innovation come from? What are some of the barriers to mainstreaming innovations?

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This video is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute