How much food does the world waste?

In a pair of stories airing today on American Public Media’s Marketplace, we address food waste in Senegal and California. But how much food do we really waste? And why does it matter?

It’s extremely difficult to accurately calculate food waste. You’ve got the waste at the farm, waste during processing, waste during transportation, waste during distribution and waste by consumers. And what counts as waste? Does it include stems or leaves that we could eat but often toss out? Does it include crops that die before harvest? Does it include the extra calories we consume that we don’t need?

So, as you might expect, estimates of food waste are wide ranging. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently put out a report claiming that 40 percent of America’s food goes uneaten. By its calculations, a family of four will throw away up to $2,275 worth of food a year. That’s a lot of spoiled peaches and leftover enchiladas. 

The council’s estimate is higher than other numbers out there. In an often-cited study [PDF] from 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated that about 27 percent of edible food gets tossed in the trash by stores, restaurants and consumers.

Global numbers are equally difficult to pin down. The U.N. estimates [PDF] about a third of all the food produced for people is wasted. That’s 1.3 billion tons of food a year. It found that in high-income countries, much of the food is tossed out once it gets to consumers – when we go out to dinner and don’t finish our plate or when we buy too much lettuce and let it get slimy in the fridge. In poorer countries, food is wasted earlier in the supply chain – on farms and during transportation to market. 

The accuracy of all of these numbers is debatable. I spoke to Michigan State University professor Tom Reardon, who has studied the food supply chain in large Asian cities. He doesn’t come close to finding the amount of waste that many of these international studies claim. He thinks waste in these areas is closer to 6 to 7 percent. No farmer, he says, can afford to let a large part of his or her crop be ruined before it gets to market. Reardon also has found waste numbers have improved as roads get better, producers have more access to mobile phones and the food market consolidates.

So will a reduction in food waste really help us feed the world population of 9 billion expected by 2050? It’ll definitely help. 

In some parts of the world, like here in the U.S., we buy and throw out more food than we need. At the same time, others here are going hungry. In other parts of the world, it’s possible that food waste isn’t the problem it’s made out to be. But still, less food in the trash means more land, water and resources can be used to feed more people. 

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+ Food for 9 Billion

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