food waste

Food waste and food loss

This week the World Bank has been highlighting the problem of food waste, reinforcing previous findings that between a quarter and a third of the world’s food is lost or wasted.

I’ve written about this before, pointing out that this happens in developing countries as well as overconsuming Western ones. The World Bank report gives us a breakdown between the two, which I’ve not seen before.


In deciding which part of the world has a bigger problem, bear in mind that roughly one in seven of the world’s people live in developed countries.

The report also gives us a helpful distinction between food that is ‘lost’ and food that is ‘wasted’.

Food loss is the bigger problem in developing countries, and “typically occurs at the production, storage, processing, distribution, and marketing stages of the food value chain. It is the unintended result of technical limitations or poor infrastructure.”

Food waste on the other hand, “typically takes place at the retail and consumption stages of the food value chain, the result of a conscious decision to throw food away.”


As the graph above shows, the problem is very different in different parts of the world. Americans waste an astonishing 42% of total food, and the majority of that is people wilfully throwing it away. Food waste is an affluence problem. The report points out that higher income households throw more away, with American families binning an average of $1,600 worth of food every year.

Sub-Saharan Africans on the other hand throw very little away, but lose far more at the production and handling stages, never getting the food to market in the first place. Food loss is a poverty problem, down to bumpy roads and inadequate storage facilities rather than consumer behaviour.

In a world in which hundreds of millions continue to experience hunger, and that faces rising challenges from climate change and a growing population, it is vital that we fix both sides of this problem.


  1. I do think it is hyperbole to make an equivalence between food loss and food waste. Food loss in developing countries means people starve or are malnourished. A real human evil. Food waste in the developed world means we have less spare money to spend on iphones. Not in the same league. Its not like we could take the food we waste in the West and send it to feed the hungry in the developing world, because due to their terrible food distribution systems most of it would turn into food waste on the way.

    And we know a solution to food waste, Get Tesco and other multinational supermarkets into the developing world as their food chain expertise and investment is why we don’t have much food loss in the developed world.

    1. Except that we buy our food on the global markets. That increased demand pushes up prices for everybody. We then throw away what we bought. That has a direct impact on the prices people are paying in poorer countries, making hunger more likely.

      1. Lets look at that logically, linking it to food loss. Those places where food loss is a problem either can’t be importing food, since their distribution system is so poor (that the reason for the food waste) so prices would be local. Alternatively the imports are suplementing the local food in which case the prices can’t be much higher than the local produce. Higher prices would create an incentive to improve the food storage chain as there would be more money to send on it and higher profits to be made. Reducing food loss would also lower food prices both locally and globally.

        Now I haven’t seen an estmate as to how much lower food prices paid by the poorest would be if the West cuts its food waste by 50% compared to if food loss were were cut by 50% in the developing world. That kind of information would illuminate this debate. My betting is that cutting food loss would have a bigger effect.

        It does amuse me that this cuts against the ‘local food’ movement. They seem to want less of the large supermarket supply chains that mean we have so little food loss in the West.

        1. It doesn’t actually cut against the local food movement, as food would be eaten locally and therefore wouldn’t be lost in transportation, which is one of the biggest problems.

          It may cut against the anti-corporation, anti-globalisation movement, who would be very reluctant to see supermarkets involved in developing countries. But then you are assuming that the supermarkets actually want to be in Ethiopia or Somalia, which is a pretty big assumption.

          The logic of your first paragraph is missing a vital element too – those places that suffer most from food loss do import food, and it is often cheaper than the local stuff, as it is the hugely subsidised surplus grain from US and EU farmers. (hurray for free market hypocrisy) That undercuts local suppliers, who then have no money to invest in silos and warehouses.

          It’s complicated for sure, but the point of the post is to distinguish between food loss and food waste, not to treat them as equivalents.

          1. Not trying too hard to defend CAP but EU subsidies are now much more linked to farm payments than production and they claim export subsidies were eliminated in 2006. Does this mean you want CAP scrapped too? US farm support is a giant boondoggle and I’d love to see a giant axe taken to it as well.

            Hardly free market hypocrisy since most people who argue for free trade don’t like agricultural protection.

            If there is money to be made then Tescos would like to be in Ethiopia – Somalia is a little unsafe. They surely do want to be in India where there is lots of food loss.

  2. It is shameful that in 2014 we have this problem. The need for food never wanes, yet the ability to make the percentage of food harvested or made equal that consumed is so different.

  3. Yes, free market theorists would be against subsidies, it’s in the politics of it that it gets hypocritical – the double standard that insists that subsidies are wrong when developing countries do it and fine when we do it. It’s also hypocritical how certain politicians will loudly decry subsidies for renewable energy while pocketing the CAP payments from their estates.

    I’m not against subsidies altogether, and I think the recent round of CAP reforms to make European farming could have been useful if they hadn’t been so watered down. It’s not as bad as it was though. I’d like to see tougher changes, including caps on how much any particular landowner could receive. I get the impression that if we scrapped CAP completely, we’d pretty quickly discover how many useful things it was doing.

    1. Who exactly is saying its wrong for developing countries do subsidise their farming and fine when we do it?

      1. No one says both out loud, that’s the whole point. The US and the EU are firmly in favour of open markets in developing countries through their negotiators at the WTO, but won’t stand up to their own farmers at home. The IMF has a lot to answer for on that front too, as an extension of American foreign policy.

          1. You misunderstand. I’m not saying any particular individuals hold that view. It’s a disconnect between foreign policy and domestic policy. That’s not a conspiracy, it’s just a double standard.

  4. Having worked in West Africa and have friends who live in other parts of Africa-Corruption is really one of the reasons so many African countries and their people are suffering needlessly. Whether it be Britain or any country that agrees to send money, rarely does that money reach where it should or is put to the correct use. So much of it disapears mostly into the bank accounts of those that supposedly operate the country. This is fact and can be proven. I have seen & experienced it first hand. Until this mind set alters, Britain should refrain from sending money which quite frankly it cannot afford-leave it to the Charities that operate for and in Africa-more likely the monetary aid will reach where it is needed.

    1. I’ve witnessed corruption first-hand too during my 12 years in Africa. It’s an important topic, and I write about it on the blog here.

      I don’t think cutting off all aid would be in any way productive. For starters, it would assume that all aid is diverted into the hands of the elite, when this is demonstrably untrue. Stopping all aid would punish those that are using it well along with those using it badly. What’s more, good aid can be a tool in encouraging transparency, by rewarding those that are clamping down on corruption.

      There are good forms of aid and bad. There are degrees of corruption. There is endless research around how to work more directly in partnership with local people, cutting out middle men and reducing opportunities for corruption. Good aid is entirely possible, and DfID is more aware of this than most, incidentally.

      You’re also missing the fact that much of Britain’s aid is conducted through charities. If you cut off the government’s contributions, you’d be cutting off one of the key source of funding to the charities you’re recommending.

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