Economic study suggests the extent and cost of food waste are dramatically overstated

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Is the extent and cost of food waste overstated?

Related tags Food waste Food Food and agriculture organization

The increasingly loud debate about food waste could easily lead one to believe it is “the” biggest issue industry currently faces, but  new study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics suggests most estimates are overblown and many proposed solutions are off-base.

Current food waste estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations range between one-quarter to one-third of all food produced worldwide, and 35 million to 103 million tons in the US alone. But researchers, including Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota, argue that “there is a dearth of credible empirical evidence on the extent, cost and causes of food waste.”

They explain that much of the current “evidence”​ comes from “gray literature,”​ which includes white papers and reports from advocacy groups. Other evidence with internal validity focuses on too narrow of applications to provide real value, they add.

In addition, the study argues that the definitions of food waste used by leading players such as the US Environmental Protection agency, the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union’s FUSIONS project all differ dramatically – making it near impossible to accurately and consistently measure food waste.

For example, some definitions argue food waste only refers to product that is nutritious and edible for humans, although what people define as edible varies by culture, the authors note. Other definitions only consider food that was available after harvest – ignoring the quantities of edible food that are left in the field because they are not the right size or shape for retailers.

Likewise, most working definitions of food waste value the food at retail prices, although in reality the value would vary based on where in the supply chain the item was when it was lost or wasted, the authors argue.

And finally, they argue, some definitions consider food wasted if it is not consumed by humans, even if it is consumed by animals or used as fertilizer and fuel.  The paper authors argue that by virtue of being used by animals or through other means, the food is not wasted.

The researchers attempt to address these shortfalls by streamlining the definition of food waste to include all food produced which is lost or not used in any capacity. They then value the food wasted depending on where in the supply chain it exits to gain a more accurate picture of its worth and cost to society.

Recommended policy actions

With this working definition, the authors note that to reduce food waste at every stage in the supply chain policy makers should address the amount of food diverted for other uses, the amount of food that is recovered and the proportion of food that is lost.

Exactly how policy makers should address each of these variables depends in part of the overall economy, the researchers note.

“In developing countries, where food waste contributes to food insecurity, food waste largely occurs in the production, processing and distribution stages before food is purchased by consumers. This suggests specific policy interventions,”​ the authors write.

On the other hand, “in developed countries, the bulk of food waste occurs after food is distributed to food business and retailers and is sold to consumers, which calls for very different … policy recommendations,”​ the authors say.

The authors also recommend that policy makers consider the cost of reducing food waste at various stages and ensure that the cost of salvaging food or redirecting it for non-food uses are not higher that the cost of waste.

“Otherwise,”​ they note, “sever misallocations of resources might occur.”

Using this definition and considerations for the cost of redirecting or recovering food versus allowing it to go to waste, the authors found the value of food waste is “overstated by most extant estimates.”

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1 comment

computer specialist

Posted by mike moxcey,

I prefer the term "slack" as in "There's a 40% slack in our food delivery system."
We sure don't want agriculture set up like the mismanaged just-in-time inventory system used by auto manufacturers of the late 1990s. One sunken container ship disrupts the entire production chain. A food system that over-produces in normal times may be able to get all of us through times of droughts or floods or weevils.

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