The Difference Between Food Loss and Food Waste

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Food waste is a growing problem, not only in the United States, but across the world. Every year roughly one third of all food produced in the world for human consumption goes uneaten. The sobering paradox is that while millions of tons of food are being thrown in the garbage, one in nine people worldwide were chronically undernourished in 2012-2014. Most of the world’s hungry live in developing nations (791 million) with an additional 14 million people living in developed countries. One in six Americans say that food runs out at least once a year, with over 17 million households in the U.S. not having adequate resources to meet their basic food needs. Whereas problems with food production, transportation and storage infrastructures account for a substantial majority of food loss in the developing world, in industrial countries, the largest proportion of food waste is at the hands of individual consumers. In fact, in the United States every year a typical four-person household discards roughly $1,500 worth of usable food.

Waste in The Aggregate Food Marketing System: A Conceptual Framework

The problem of food waste is a complex one, involving multiple actors and institutions. Food is lost or wasted throughout the marketing system, from the farm to the consumer’s table. To delve into the nature of these losses, as well as potential remedies, I adopt the concept of the “aggregate marketing system.” Such a perspective when applied to the food supply recognizes that the marketing system incorporates many business activities and processes as well as actions by consumers and governments. It is composed of planned and continuous flows among participants, including the flows of commodities, finished goods, payments, information and influence. The system is far-reaching in several respects, extending all the way from the collection of agricultural products through multiple intermediate processes for ultimate use and disposition by an individual household. Adoption of a system perspective enables insight into the drivers of food waste across sectors and societies. Here is a basic conceptual framework that identifies major contributors to, and forms of food waste within the system:

A number of government and industry studies have been conducted to determine how much food is wasted, at what point in the process losses occur, and how this varies across geographies. Within this literature, variations exist in how food waste is defined. For clarity, I like to use an overarching definition of food waste that includes all edible materials within the food supply that are intended for human consumption. Although food waste occurs across the system, its causes vary considerably depending on the stage of the supply chain.

“Food loss” is the decrease in food originally intended for human consumption that occurs prior to or during harvest, storage, processing, transportation, packaging or presentation (but prior to acquisition by the end consumer). In broad terms, food losses are influenced by crop production choices and outcomes, agricultural/food processing technology and infrastructure, marketing channels and their operations. Figure 2 summarizes the major sources of food losses from agricultural production to the point of sale:

Periodic losses prior to harvest may occur due to unanticipated weather conditions such as severe drought, flooding or freezing conditions. For example, the 2012 drought that affected 80% of U.S. farmland resulted in significant crop damage and loss. Losses of commodities such as fruits and vegetables may also occur at the harvest point. These are often guided by economic considerations such as labor costs or high crop yields that reduce commodity prices, as well as by minimum quality standards set by government regulators, consumer demand for perfect produce or technological issues related to mechanized harvesting.

Food is susceptible to additional losses in storage due to natural deterioration, insects or improper temperature conditions. Frequent handling by food brokers, processors, or retailers can also result in shrinkage. Foods in the U.S. are handled an average of 33 times before ever being touched by a consumer. As detailed in column 3 of Figure 2, food losses through contamination, defect or grading decisions also arise when agricultural commodities are processed by manufacturers into consumer goods. And, losses at the point of sale, whether in retail or food service are generally associated with the challenges of managing large, perishable inventories while attempting to satisfy a potentially unpredictable consumer base. Losses during transport occur at multiple stages in the supply chain, due to handling and the passage of time and may be exacerbated as channels of distribution become more global. To illustrate, over eighteen percent of all U.S. agricultural production is exported, and this rate is increasing.

Next week, I’ll discuss food waste from a consumer perspective, explaining the sequence of thoughts and behaviors by individuals that leads to squandered food.

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