Understanding Food Loss and Waste

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The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food loss and waste (FLW) as a reduction in food quantity or quality (FAO Definitional framework 2014). FLW occurs at different stages of a food value chain, including agriculture, post-harvest, processing, distribution, retail and consumption. Food waste is a part of FLW. Food waste refers to food that is in good condition to be consumed, but has been discarded by choice or because it has been left to spoil. Typically, food waste occurs at the consumer level, such as in hospitals, restaurants, and in homes. Post-harvest food loss is food removed from the supply chain at any point between harvest and human consumption stages. The post-harvest stages are unique to different food products and contexts. The final destinations of FLW can include animal feed, industrial use, compost, and landfill.

Present scope of FLW from production to consumption
In 2011, the FAO estimated that nearly one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted each year around the world (FAO 2011). This estimate is based on the mass quantity of food produced for human consumption that was lost and wasted from production to consumption stages.

Regional FLW differences
The value chain stage where food is lost or wasted depends on the context. The majority of FLW occurs during pre-consumption stages in both developed and developing regions. The per capita levels (kg/year) of food loss at the pre-consumption stages are similar across most regions. Food waste at the consumer value chain stage makes up a greater portion of overall FLW in developed regions compared to developing regions (FAO 2011).

The causes of FLW around the world are context-specific, and depend on the country, conditions, products, and practices. Generally, the causes are different between developed and developing countries (FAO 2011). The causes among different global regions are often related to the value chains stages where most loss occurs. However, there may be upstream causes of FLW that are not seen until later on in the value chain.

Consequences of food loss and waste on sustainable food systems
Sustainable food systems provide enough safe and nutritious food for all people in a way that protects economic, social and environmental resources for the food security of future generations (HPLE 2014). FLW threatens these resources and the sustainable food production, negatively impacting food security and nutrition for current and future generations.

FLW has economic, environmental and nutritional consequences. FLW impacts different resources along the food supply chain. FLW affects consumers because there is less food available for consumption. In turn, producers must produce more food, which requires more inputs, such as land, fertilizer, water, and labor. More food production may also generate more pollution. FLW impacts food security by reducing the availability and access to food, particularly for more perishable food groups that are important sources of minerals and vitamins (e.g. fruits, vegetables, and animal products). Ultimately, the consequences of FLW have effects at the public and individual level (FAO Food wastage footprint 2014).


  1. FAO. Definitional Framework of Food Loss. (2014).
  2. FAO. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. (2011).
  3. HLPE. Food Losses and Waste in the Context of Sustainable Food Systems. A Report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security. 1–6 (2014). doi:65842315
  4. FAO. Food wastage footprint full-cost accounting. (2014).
  • 1. A household purchased tomatoes and stored them in their refrigerator where they were forgotten about. The tomatoes are now spoiled, and the household decides to compost them. This is an example of:
  • 2. What percentage of worldwide food production is lost or wasted each year?
  • 3. Which global regions tend to have less food waste at the consumer stage?
  • 4. FLW has negatively impacts which of the following parts of a sustainable food system?
  • 5. Which of the following food groups is the most perishable?
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