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The global food waste challenge

An article defining food waste and food loss and showing where they occur in the supply chain as well as the scale of their impact globally and in EU.
A pie chart with two thirds in blue representing what we eat, and one third in yellow representing what we throw away

In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that roughly a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to 1.3 billion tons per year [1].

This was the first report to raise awareness of food waste as a global issue and to link food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is only a very rough estimate and it’s still widely cited because updated information is hard to find. In October 2019, the FAO issued a new report [2] replacing this broad estimate with two indices: the Food Loss Index (FLI) and the Food Waste Index (FWI). But more importantly, the report highlights the surprising fact that we know very little about how much food is lost or wasted, or where and why this happens.

Food loss and waste: what’s the difference?

The idea of food being lost or wasted sounds straightforward, but their definitions vary between organisations and between countries. In their 2019 report, the FAO proposed new definitions based on a consensus reached in consultation with experts, explaining that food loss and waste is the decrease in quantity or quality of food along the supply chain. The decrease in quality can be nutritional, cosmetic, or safety related.

The distinction between the two terms is:

Food loss

The decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers affecting the supply of food. If food losses are reduced, the supply of food into the food supply chain increases. Food loss occurs at early stages of the food supply chain, not at the retailer, food service and consumer levels.

An example of food loss occurs when fresh produce that doesn’t meet market standards as regards shape, colour or ripeness is removed from the supply chain before reaching retailers.

Food waste

The decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by consumers, or by retailers and food service providers that affect consumer behaviour.

For example, edible food that is considered out of date being discarded by both retailers and consumers, and edible leftovers being discarded by households.

It’s important to note that food diverted to other uses such as animal feed is not considered to be food loss or waste, nor is discarding the inedible parts of fresh produce, even though there may be an economic loss.

Where in the supply chain does food loss and waste occur?

Food loss and waste across the supply chain in the EU in 2012.

Food loss and waste result from a combination of direct causes and indirect drivers across different stages of the food supply chain.

  • At the farm: on-farm losses can occur before, during or after harvesting. Causes include unsuitable harvesting time, unexpected harsh climatic conditions, harvest and handling practices, infestation by pests or diseases, infrastructure, and marketing challenges (ie, the cost of reaching the market is too high relative to the market price). For fish, meat and animal products, important causes of loss include improper harvesting, slaughtering, handling, or storing practices.
  • Storage: significant losses are caused by inadequate storage (eg, poor management of temperature and humidity, insufficient disinfection, prolonged storage due to lack of transportation); logistical mismanagement (poor handling of delicate produce); as well as decisions made at earlier stages of the supply chain that cause products to have a shorter shelf life.
  • In transit: losses due to lack of proper transportation (eg, refrigerated trucks), technical malfunction, or human error. Transportation introduces a time gap between various stages of the food supply chain, from production to consumption. This time gap increases the risk that food may be damaged or lost due to excessive heat, cold, humidity or damage in transit, or contamination.
  • Processing and packaging: here losses are usually the result of human error, poor management, or technical malfunctions that lead to rejection of the final product due to non-compliance with standards imposed by buyers. Processed foods may also be lost or wasted because of poor order forecasting and inefficient factory processes.
  • In the shop: the causes of food waste at the retail level are linked to limited shelf life of perishable foods; removal of ‘imperfect’ looking goods; overstocking; variability in demand; inappropriate product display and packaging; food not sold before ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates.
  • At point of consumption: significant quantities of food are wasted at hospitality and food service outlets, including school and staff canteens, hospitals, restaurants, pubs, hotels and leisure centres. Causes include inappropriate food storage; poor stock management, menu planning or demand forecasting; inaccurate portion control and consumer and staff behaviour which may cause spoilage, waste during food preparation, surplus unserved food and leftovers on customers’ plates.
  • In the home: consumer waste is often caused by poor purchasing and meal planning; excess buying (influenced by over-large portions and pack sizes); impulse buying (promotions or bulk discounts like three-for-two); confusion over labels (‘best before’ and ‘use by’); and poor in-home storing or stock management – preparing too much food and not knowing how to use leftovers.

And, as food chains become longer, the food passes through many more hands before it reaches us with a correspondingly increased chance of becoming loss or waste.

Current estimates of food loss and waste

The FAO 2019 report estimated that globally, around 14% of the world’s food is lost [FLI] from production before even reaching the retail level. Estimates for the Food Waste Index are still being compiled by UN Environment and will complement the Food Loss Index to provide a better understanding of how much food is lost or wasted in the world.

These more precise definitions and indices will allow FAO to measure progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, calling for a reduction of global food waste by 2030.

What’s the status of food loss and waste in the EU?

A large-scale EU-funded research project, FUSIONS, ran from 2012-2016. With data from 2012, this project estimated that 88 million tonnes of food produced in Europe is wasted annually. This is equivalent to 20% of all food produced in the EU. This estimate includes both the edible and inedible parts of food and equates to 173 kg of food waste per person. The costs associated with food waste for the EU in 2012 are estimated to be around 143 billion euros.

More than half of the total food waste in the EU (47 million tonnes) is generated in households, with 70% of food waste arising from households, food services and retail.

The bad news is, we are half of the problem, but the good news is… we can be half the solution!

We’ve set the scene by providing a lot of facts and numbers. Which ones surprised you? Please share your thoughts with other learners in the comments section below.


[1] FAO, 2011. Global food losses and food waste – extent, causes and prevention, by J. Gustavsson, C. Cederberg, U. Sonesson, R. van Otterdijk & A. Meybeck. [Accessed May 2020]. [Online]. Available online at:
[2] FAO, 2019. The State of Food and Agriculture 2019. Moving forward on food loss and waste reduction. Rome. [Accessed September 2020]. [Online]. Available at:

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