Zero Hunger

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Food Waste Management

  • Nicole Josiane KennardEmail author
Living reference work entry

Definitions of Food Loss and Waste

Together, food loss and waste comprise the total edible parts of plants and animals (food) that are produced and harvested for consumption by humans but in the end are not consumed by humans (Lipinski et al. 2013; Parfitt et al. 2010). Therefore, food which was produced for the intention of human consumption but is then redirected to other uses such as bioenergy or animal feed is still counted as food loss and waste.

The terms “food loss” and “food waste” in some cases are used interchangeably, but in fact they refer to losses at different stages of the food supply chain. The food supply chain is composed of the stages that food travels through from agricultural production and harvest to reaching the consumer. These stages include agricultural production (harvest), postharvest handling and storage, processing (i.e., slaughter, production of food items such as bread from wheat, etc.), distribution (i.e., markets and retailers), and consumption (FAO 2011).

“Food loss” refers to reductions in the quantity of food sustained in the food supply chain after harvest before it reaches the state in which it is presented to the consumer (Lipinski et al. 2013; Parfitt et al. 2010; Schuster and Torero 2016). Food loss occurs during postharvest stages in the supply chain such as handling, storage, transport, processing, and distribution (Parfitt et al. 2010; Schuster and Torero 2016). These losses are generally a result of limitations or problems associated with the agricultural process or processing technology (i.e., food spoiling due to poor storage). “Food waste”, on the other hand, refers to food that is of appropriate quality to eat but is discarded before it is consumed, either at the retail location or by the final consumer (Lipinski et al. 2013; Parfitt et al. 2010). In this case, food waste is largely a product of retail operations and consumer behavior.

The term “potential food loss and waste” has also been defined to include preharvest losses, such as from pest and disease problems before harvesting or other reasons crops may be left in the field and not harvested (i.e., price drops, poor weather conditions, or unsatisfactory appearance) (Schuster and Torero 2016).

The Problem of Food Waste

An FAO study using compiled global food production and waste data from 2009 estimated that 32% of all food which is produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted; this amounts to approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year (FAO 2011). When this estimate is converted to calories, approximately 24%, or one out of every four food calories produced, is wasted (Lipinski et al. 2013).

The majority of food loss and waste occur at different stages in the food supply chain for developed and developing regions. In industrialized countries, the majority of food is wasted at the retail and consumer stages, while in low-income countries, food is often lost in the production or processing stages of the supply chain before it even reaches the consumer (FAO 2011). Overall, most food loss and waste comes from consumers in areas of mass food consumption (Cloke 2016). For instance, food waste at the consumer level in developed countries is estimated at 222 million tonnes, which is nearly as high as the total net food production (230 million tonnes) of sub-Saharan Africa (FAO 2011). Figure 1 displays some of the various causes of food loss and waste throughout the food supply chain (Lipinski et al. 2013; Bloom 2011).
Fig. 1

Causes of food loss and waste in the food supply chain

Food loss and waste pose a myriad of challenges and lost opportunities for farmers, consumers, and societies as a whole. For farmers, food loss means a wasted investment and lost profit from food items that could not be sold; this, in some cases, can lead to higher prices for consumers if there are resulting shortages in supply (Lipinski et al. 2013). This economic burden is especially critical for smallholders living on the edge of food insecurity, where a slight shift in profit margins can significantly influence livelihood (FAO 2011).

Food loss and waste also create an additional burden on the environment by using land, water, and energy resources inefficiently and generating unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions to grow, process, and transport food which is ultimately not utilized (FAO 2011; Lipinski et al. 2013). Additionally, the disposal of wasted food further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions via methane produced from landfills (Irani et al. 2017). The amount of land mass needed to grow the total sum of all uneaten food globally equates to 1.4 billion hectares or 30% of the Earth’s total agricultural land mass (Irani et al. 2017). In the USA, the production, processing, and distribution of all food wasted in 2003 used one-fourth of the total freshwater consumption that year and 300 million barrels of oil (4% of total oil consumption) (Hall et al. 2009). Wasted food that was landfilled constituted approximately 25% of all US methane emissions in 2003 (Hall et al. 2009). The amount of food wasted in the USA in 2007 equated to 2030 ± 160 trillion British thermal units (BTU) of embedded energy from all stages of the food supply chain (Cuéller and Webber 2010). This amount of wasted energy represented 2% of the annual energy consumption in the USA in 2007, which equated to more energy than the annual production of ethanol from grains and the annual petroleum available from oil drilling in the outer continental shelf (Cuéller and Webber 2010). Overall, the global food system is estimated to contribute to as much as one-third of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, signalling that it is imperative to remove all inefficiencies, such as waste, from this system (Pretty et al. 2010). Thus, food loss and waste represent not only a lost economic opportunity for farmers but also a severe environmental burden for the world by using limited land, water, and energy resources inefficiently.

Food Waste and Food Security

The second UN Sustainable Development Goal calls for global food security and the end of world hunger by 2030 (United Nations 2015). Achieving food security means that all individuals will have access, at all times, to enough nutritious food to live a healthy life (Stringer 2016). According to the FAO, food security is composed of four components: availability of food, access to food, utilization of food (i.e., acquiring food safely and receiving a balance of nutrients), and stability of food supply (i.e., resiliency to shocks in the food supply system) (Barrett 2010; FAO 2014).

Thus, ensuring the food security of an estimated 9.8 billion people by 2050 in an equitable and sustainable way is identified as one of the most crucial challenges facing society today (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2017; Godfray et al. 2010). The global spike in food prices in 2008 brought a wave of panic; as late as 2011, UN agencies and other international organisations were calling for increases in global agricultural production by 70-100% in order to feed the world's population in 2050 (World Bank 2008; FAO 2009; World Food Program 2009; UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2011). However, recent estimates by the FAO only call for a total increase in global agricultural production of 50% from 2012 levels, with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia needing to double production and the rest of the world needing to increase production by one-third (FAO 2017). These estimates depend on current projections for demand, which are based on a rising global population and shifting food consumption trends in developing nations (such as an increased demand for meat in South and East Asia (FAO 2017). However, issues of global food security are multifaceted, and increased food supply will not necessarily end world hunger. In fact, FAO data shows that enough food is already produced worldwide to provide adequate calories for the 805 million chronically undernourished individuals in the world today (OECD 2009; FAO 2014; Stringer 2016). Hunger remains a problem of access, obtaining an appropriate balance of nutrients, and purchasing power; these issues are further exacerbated during times of food price inflation and volatility, such as the 2008 food crisis (Stringer 2016; Bailey 2011; Holt-Giménez and Altieri 2013). Issues associated with hunger are largely a result of the transnational agribusiness corporations and financial trading companies controlling the global supply chain through the corporate food regime (Clapp et al. 2017; Sage 2013). These corporations use global issues of hunger simply as a profit motive to encourage investment in novel private technologies that promise to dramatically increase food production by 2050, whether or not this increase will actually enhance the human right to food (Clapp et al. 2017; Sage 2013; De Schutter 2011).

This research for a second Green Revolution has been framed nicely with a focus on sustainability, coined as “sustainable intensification” by the Royal Society of London (2009). Sustainable intensification promotes technologies, such as genetic modification and precision application of fertilizers/pesticides, which allow for increased food production on the same area of land while ostensibly limiting environmental harm, decreasing agricultural contributors to climate change, and promoting global food security (Royal Society of London 2009; Godfray et al. 2010). Thus, this productivist discourse and area of research is founded under the supposition that the global food security challenge can be solved merely through increased investment and production, by increasing the supply of a limited set of food commodities through intensification practices and the adoption of precision and biotechnologies (Sage 2013; Cloke 2016; Tomlinson 2011). The fact that this discourse has become the mainstream solution to achieving global food security, despite the main problems of hunger, starvation, and malnutrition generally not being associated with food supply, but rather affordability and access, shows how dominant the corporate food regime is in shaping global research and politics (Sage 2013; Cloke 2016).

Thus, it becomes clear that whether or not increasing food production is needed, an upheaval of the current industrialized food regime would be more environmentally and socially sustainable to achieve global food security. Indeed, research focused on increasing food production has been espoused within the confines of an unjust and inequitable global food system (Sage 2013). This food regime is characterized by drastic contradictions, such as the existence of widespread undernutrition in some regions while at the same time having a growing global epidemic of obesity (Caballero 2007; Franklin et al. 2012). In this light, it becomes apparent that ending hunger worldwide will be contingent on reshaping the global food system (Tomlinson 2011; Berners-Lee et al. 2018). In particular, Vandermeer et al. (2018) calls for a new paradigm focused on the following principles: caring for agricultural land, removing inequities in both global and local food systems, respecting cultural dimensions of food cultivation, and focusing on cultivating food for human and public health. These principles serve as a primary step forward into understanding what is needed to cultivate an equitable and just global food system.

A key facet of the current industrialized food regime is food waste. Indeed, food loss and waste are generated from corporate food production and distribution networks which profit from this waste (Cloke 2013, 2016). Food loss and waste are the result of an unjust, unsustainable, and vastogenic (waste-creating, waste-profiting) corporate-dominated food system (Sage 2013; Cloke 2016). Within this food regime, food security is becoming increasingly dependent on transnational agricultural corporations which control seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides and a diminishing number of corporate food wholesalers and retailers (Cloke 2016). For these institutions, food waste is not just a side effect of operation, but rather a core part of their profit mechanism (Cloke 2013, 2016). Transnational food corporations are able to pressure small food producers into driving down production costs to lower prices of food, creating a marketing strategy centered on measures that speed up food consumption and food waste, thus increasing turnover and profit (Cloke 2016). It is likely for this reason that food waste is often left out of most discourses proclaiming the need for increased food production, which inherently benefits transnational agribusiness corporations (Cloke 2016).

Thus, the management of food waste presents an inherent opportunity for sustainable development. By reducing the amount of food that is lost or wasted, food availability and access can be improved without having to intensify food production, increase the amount of land used for agriculture, or increase the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (Babar and Mirgani 2014; Schuster and Torero 2016). By reducing food loss and waste, the efficiency of the food supply chain can be improved and thus reduce food prices for consumers, thereby improving food accessibility (FAO 2011).

Currently, the global population of undernourished people could be fed if only one-fourth of all food wasted could be saved (Basher et al. 2013). In terms of future food security, studies have shown that halving the total amount of food calories currently lost and wasted (from 24% to 12%) by 2050 would save roughly 1,314 trillion kcal of food per year; this in turn makes up 22% of the estimated calories needed to feed the world population in 2050, based on business as usual projections for food demand (Searchinger et al. 2013). Reducing food loss and waste can help alleviate poverty and advance rural development by making more food available for farmers to sell and for personal consumption; bring benefits for women by increasing return on investment and thus reducing total time working in fields and also by reducing household expenditures on food if less is wasted; help avoid agricultural expansion into natural ecosystems; reduce the amount of water needed for agricultural production by better utilizing the food that is already being grown; and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture by using more of the food that is grown and by diverting food waste from landfills (Lipinski et al. 2013). Thus, reducing food loss and waste provides an opportunity to bring positive benefits to a wide number of sustainable development issues, including food security. However, decreasing food loss and waste in a meaningful way will require an integrated approach from all stakeholders in the supply chain and a new global food system where waste is not used as a profit mechanism (Lipinski et al. 2013; Cloke 2013, 2016).

Reducing Food Loss and Waste

Reducing Production Losses

Food losses during agricultural production can occur when crops that could be harvested are left in the ground. This can be because weather conditions make harvest unfavorable or impossible or if produce does not meet quality standards for the client.

In the USA, it is common for farmers to grow more than they plan to sell, as a way to avoid risk if some of their crop is destroyed from weather conditions or pests. However, in the cases that farmers have overproduced, but the market is unfavorable for sale, many will leave a large portion of the crop in the ground, as it will cost more to harvest it than they would receive from the sale (Bloom 2011). In this way, food markets are working against farmers, and there needs to be policy in place to protect farmers in times of crop losses and encourage harvest in times of overproduction to create surplus food supplies (Gille 2013).

Postharvest Handling and Storage

A major contribution to food loss, especially in developing regions, is the lack of adequate handling of and storage facilities for fresh products such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. In developing countries, 19% of fruit and vegetable loss occurs during handling and storage (FAO 2011). These food items can quickly spoil in hot climates and thus require proper cool storage after catch, slaughter, or harvesting (Rolle 2006; Stuart 2009). Additionally, failure to store cereal or pulse crops in airtight conditions allows moisture and pests to enter, potentially causing mold, toxin, or pest contamination of the crop (Lipinski et al. 2013). This often means that farmers must sell off their entire crop soon after harvest, which can mean receiving lower prices as supply will be high at this time (Kimenju et al. 2009). Thus, introducing and investing in technologies which allow for the proper handling and storage of fresh produce and grains in low-income countries could help reduce food loss.

Proper handling of fresh fruits and vegetables after harvest and during transport is critical, as these items can easily be bruised or blemished, becoming unmarketable (Adegbola et al. 2011). Sacks and bags are often used in developing countries to transport produce, but these provide little protection (Rapusas and Rolle 2009). One option is to use plastic crates, which provide more crop protection, are reusable for up to 5 years, and can often ease manual labor due to their manageable size and presence of handles (Lipinski et al. 2013; Kitinoja 2010). One study conducted in Sri Lanka found that plastic crates reduced vegetable losses by weight from 30% to 5%, compared with previous handling strategies (Fernando 2006). However, plastic crates can be difficult for some farmers to secure, due to either availability or price (Fernando 2006). Thus, there is research needed to identify better handling and transport containers using locally sourced and environmentally friendly materials.

Increasing investment in infrastructure (i.e., building reliable roads) and introducing refrigeration to store food would reduce food losses and allow fresh food to arrive at the market more quickly, preventing spoilage (Lipinski et al. 2013). If electric refrigeration is not an option, evaporative coolers could be used to extend shelf life of food and reduce spoilage (Lipinski et al. 2013). Evaporative coolers do not require electricity and keep food at lower-than-room temperatures by utilizing the evaporation of water in an outer vessel to create a cooling effect on the inner vessel, where the food is stored. Prices of these coolers can range from US $2 to $74 depending on complexity, but even the simplest models were able to store fruits, such as tomatoes and guavas, in Nigeria for 18 days longer than without storage (Lipinski et al. 2013). Evaporative coolers can also be constructed easily with local materials, making them an ideal storage solution.

Damage from pests is an additional source of postharvest food losses. For example, a study by Normile (2010) showed that rodents consume a total of 6% of the annual rice harvest in Asia during production and storage, enough to feed Indonesia’s population of roughly 240 million people for one year. In West and Central Africa, damage from pests severely affects the marketability of cowpeas postharvest (Langyintuo et al. 2003; Lipinski et al. 2013). Innovative packaging strategies can help reduce food loss. For cowpeas, researchers at Purdue University have developed a resealable plastic storage bag to reduce postharvest losses from pests (Baributsa et al. 2012). The storage unit is comprised of three bags, with the crop held in the innermost bag. Each bag is tied with an airtight seal which will deplete oxygen, causing any pests to dry out and die. A study in Nigeria in 2009 found that farmers who used these bags saw an average increase in cowpea-related income of 48% and were able to sell cowpeas at prices 5–10% higher than cowpeas stored using other methods (Hirvonen 2011; Coulibaly et al. 2012).

A larger-scale option for storage of cereals and pulses is to construct small metal silos, for use by individual households (Lipinski et al. 2013). In these, crops can be stored safely for up to 3 years (FAO 2008). A study in Kenya demonstrated that after storing crops for 6 months, crop loss in a small metal silo was only 1.4% versus 24% in a traditional polypropylene bag (Kimenju and De Groote 2010). Despite the higher investment costs for metal silos, economic benefits for using silos over polypropylene bags were found to be three times greater (Kimenju and De Groote 2010). The use of metal silos could also help to decrease use of pesticides in storage facilities.

Surplus harvest can also be saved via canning or drying. In Tanzania, the Seed Initiative, which aims to provide female farmers with greater market access, supplied female farmers with solar drying technology for surplus fruits (Lipinski et al. 2013). This allowed for reduced food losses on the farm by directly engaging women, who interact with food at each stage of the value chain (Lipinski et al. 2013).

To increase the use of technological solutions like these, there must be increased educational awareness and availability of the products and/or the materials to build them. This outreach should be done through extension agencies, government programs, and even donor agencies (Lipinski et al. 2013). Engaging local workers, such as tinsmiths in the construction of metal silos, brings additional economic benefits by stimulating local economies (FAO 2008). Training programs should encourage trainees to continue disseminating knowledge to others. For the use of these technologies to be effective, it is important that they are adapted to local contexts and engage local populations.

Distribution and Retail

Retailers of mass-produced food in developed nations are major contributors to food waste. Supermarket chains in particular contribute to food waste through poor forecasting techniques with suppliers, unnecessarily stringent aesthetic standards for produce, and wasteful marketing/operating techniques within the store.

Supermarket Contracts

Farmers and food processors who supply major supermarket chains are often forced, due to lack of other options, into contract agreements in which the retailers gain the most benefit. Small farmers are continually being forced to accept lower and lower prices for food to meet consumer expectations and demand (Cloke 2016). Additionally, most contracts cause farmers and food processors to incur large amounts of food waste at their own expense rather than at the supermarkets’. Most food manufacturers in the UK, for example, will have only a few clients, sometimes even supplying to only one supermarket. Thus, supermarkets have disproportionately higher power in all contract agreements.

The power of supermarkets often leads to overproduction, and thus wasted food, for manufacturers and farmers (Stuart 2009). In typical contracts with food manufacturers, the supermarket chain will place a forecast order to the supplier approximately a week before, delineating the amount wanted. However, this order will not be confirmed until the night before or the morning of delivery. The confirmed order will oftentimes be lower than the forecasted order, meaning the supplier has unnecessarily overproduced food products (Stuart 2009). In some cases, unsold food products remaining on supermarket shelves can still be returned to the supplier at the end of the day without payment. Thus, retailers have no incentive to plan orders beforehand, as all major costs are incurred by the suppliers (Bloom 2011; Stuart 2009). In most cases, suppliers will produce the maximum forecasted amount rather than reduce output since a failure to meet supermarket demands could result in a total loss of business from that supermarket chain (Stuart 2009). Thus, this results in mass amounts of wasted food, packaging materials, time, and energy (Stuart 2009). These contract issues are similar when farmers package on site and supply directly to supermarkets, such as in the horticultural sector.

To reduce this food waste, it is necessary for supermarkets to assume some of the responsibility for it. There need to be policies in place which protect farmers and food manufacturers from the fluctuating whims of retailers, where a set amount of foodstuffs is agreed upon and paid for before the day of delivery. This would encourage supermarkets to divert more financial resources to forecasting demand and thus limit the amount of food waste as this would come at a cost to the retailer rather than the supermarket. Furthermore, farmers and food manufacturers should pool resources together to help meet changing contract demands (Stuart 2009). Consumer pressure could help influence supermarkets to change packaging restrictions as well, so that if some food products are no longer wanted by one supermarket chain, they could easily be resold to another (Stuart 2009). Still, the main need is for retailers to accept some of the financial risks associated with wasted and unsold food, as this would drive them to better manage orders and food supply within their stores to curtail waste (Gille 2013).

Supermarket Appearance Quality Standards

A significant amount of food is wasted due to the stringent appearance quality standards that supermarkets place on their agricultural suppliers. These appearance quality standards include specific values for color, weight, size, and shape of produce. For example, until 2008 the EU standards stipulated that any bananas sold within its member countries could not have “abnormal curvature” and needed to be at least 14 cm long (Gille 2013). While many of these cosmetic standards were overturned in 2008, allowing for substandard produce to be easily sold for processing or sold in raw form as long as it is labelled as such, cosmetic standards for most table fruits (apples, citrus, berries, tomatoes, etc.) still remain (Gille 2013). The existence of these cosmetic standards means that produce that is fit for human consumption, but with certain aesthetic defects, will stay either in the ground or on the tree unharvested, will be discarded at the farm postharvesting (often through the use of photographic quality sensors), or will later be tossed by quality assurance teams in food processing facilities (Stuart 2009). These strict aesthetic requirements also apply to food manufacturers. For example, the UK-based supermarket chain Marks & Spencer requires one of its major sandwich suppliers to waste 17% of each loaf of bread, by mandating that they throw away the crust of the loaf and the first slice at either end; this amounts to a wasted 13,000 slices of bread from this factory per day (Stuart 2009). Thus, while these aesthetic standards are imposed by retailers, the costs of food waste resulting from them are all borne by the growers and food manufacturers (Gille 2013).

The resulting food loss incurred because of these appearance quality standards can be bypassed through the use of alternative markets (i.e., farmers markets and farm shops) that allow consumers to buy food directly from those producing it (Stuart 2009). In some cases, “Ugly Food” campaigns have arisen where nonprofit groups redirect produce which does not meet appearance quality standards from farms and either sell or donate it. Even some supermarket chains (such as Morrisons in the UK) have begun selling “ugly food” for discounted prices; however, this does not reduce the amount that is wasted on the farm from produce that is not harvested due to appearance.

Thus, rather than working within a failed system, there is a need to severely change the culture of supermarkets so that appearance quality standards are significantly broadened or discarded altogether. Edible, high-quality produce which may have a slight bend or discoloration should not be given a negative connotation of being “ugly” or outside the norm but should be accepted as the same quality as more homogenous-looking produce. Surveys have already shown that the majority of consumers will buy heterogeneous-looking produce as long as taste is not affected (Stuart 2009). Consumers therefore need to pressure supermarkets to accept a wider range of heterogeneous produce as the norm. Further action is needed by creating policy preventing supermarkets from enforcing these trivial appearance regulations and thereby contributing significantly to the issues of food waste, food access, and food security.

Food Expiration Dates

Food expiration dates are generally used on packaged food to inform consumers on the freshness and safety of foods, often relating to when the food can become susceptible to bacterial contamination. However, the food expiration dates printed on packaged foods are generally earlier than when the food would actually become unsafe to eat, to lessen possible food safety risks and associated liability on the supplier, retailer, or governmental food agency.

Additionally, the labelling of food expiration dates can be confusing to consumers, leading to the unnecessary disposal of food that is actually still safe to eat. This confusion comes from the fact that numerous types of expiration date labels exist. For example, in the UK, expiration date labels include “use-by” dates for foods with limited shelf life that can become unsafe to consume; “best-before” dates for foods in which quality deteriorates with time; and “sell-by” or “display until” dates which are used by retailers to manage stock (Watson and Meah 2013). In the USA, there are “sell-by,” “best if used by,” and “use-by” dates; all of these refer to food quality rather than safety, and none are actually required by the federal government (USDA 2011). The confusion surrounding what these different labels mean brings anxiety to the consumer and often spurs the wastage of food based on dates which have nothing to do with the actual safety of the food (Stuart 2009; Milne et al. 2011; USDA 2011). In the UK, a recent survey showed that 25% of respondents considered the use-by date as the primary way to evaluate whether food is safe to eat or not, although many others still use these dates as just one piece of information when making a decision on whether food is still safe to eat (Prior et al. 2011; Watson and Meah 2013). Watson and Meah (2013) further identified that the desire to keep food, rather than waste it, was a major factor which pulled people away from explicitly following use-by dates. Thus, there is an opportunity to reform expiration dates to more accurately express the spoilage of food and prevent food waste by the consumer.

Policies should be put in place to limit the different types of expiration date labels that can be placed on food packages, as well as reserving these dates for food safety rather than food quality purposes. Dates which are used to help retailers and manufacturers manage stock should be replaced with a code or scan pattern (USDA 2011). Additionally, retailers should help educate consumers on what different date labels mean, especially those referring to food quality rather than food safety issues (Lipinksi et al. 2013). New technologies can also help consumers make educated decisions about whether their food is still safe to eat. For example, there is ongoing research to develop “smart” food packaging with integrated sensors that can notify the user when food is no longer safe to eat (Silvestre et al. 2011; Nguyen et al. 2013). These sensors, made from materials such as polymer or gold nanoparticles, track the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels within the package (Silvestre et al. 2011; Nguyen et al. 2013). This indicates the metabolic activity of the microorganisms which cause the degradation of fresh meat and produce (Nguyen et al. 2013). Once a threshold level is reached, an indicator (such as a change in color) will be displayed on the package to notify the consumer, providing a visual alert that the food is no longer safe to eat. Thus, a mixture of awareness campaigns, policies, and technical solutions can help reduce food waste caused by confusion surrounding expiration dates.

Operations of Supermarkets/Restaurants

The retail/consumer interface is a major contributor to food waste globally (Cloke 2016). Within supermarkets, especially in the developed world, the corporate global food regime has made it profitable to encourage food waste (Cloke 2016). To supermarkets, it does not matter whether the food that is purchased is used or wasted, as the profit is the same; thus, it makes sense that major food/beverage producers and major supermarket chains create displays and advertisements that encourage people to buy more food than is healthy or necessary. The US obesity epidemic has thus been cited as the result of both the increased supply of cheap, readily available food and the push effect of marketing and advertising campaigns specifically designed to encourage the purchase and consumption of more food than one needs (Hall et al. 2009; Cloke 2016). Both causes come from agribusiness corporations encouraging a productivist, mass consumption agenda globally (Cloke 2016).

There are various examples of food waste at the retail (supermarket/restaurant) interface. These include large package/portion sizes; overstocked product displays; availability of fresh, ready food until closing; bulk discounts and high-volume promotions (i.e., buy one get one free vs. 50% off); and advertising of impulse purchases (NDRC 2012; Kantor et al. 1997). In fact, in a case study by Alvarez and Johnson (2011), the former president of the US grocery store chain Trader Joe’s provided major insights into a supermarket’s perception of waste. Low waste numbers in perishables were seen as a sign that a grocery store was not performing well, as this was taken to mean that the store wasn’t fully stocked and thus customer experience was suffering. More waste is also seen as a sign that a store has a high level of quality control, keeping shelves fully stocked and removing blemished items quickly. Thus, it has become apparent that food waste is not simply a by-product of restaurants and supermarkets but is built into their profit and performance standards. It is thus imperative that consumers put pressure on local supermarket chains to adopt targets and standards toward reducing food waste.

Changing Consumer Behavior

The way in which consumers interact with food, from the store or restaurant to the home, greatly influences how and why food is wasted. Adjusting how consumers interact with food in the retail environment, as well as educating consumers about food safety and food waste, can reduce food waste from consumers.

Technical Changes to the Retail Environment

Changes in packaging and merchandising can help to reduce food waste by influencing consumer behavior (Quested et al. 2011). For example, changes in packaging could include user-friendly designs which allow easy removal of all food (i.e., yogurt, jam, etc.), packages which reflect a healthy portion size, and packages which aid in keeping food fresh (i.e., resealable packs) (Quested et al. 2011). Labelling on packages could be adjusted to provide clearer date labels, guidance on freezing, and even include recipe ideas for leftovers, thereby helping consumers to make educated decisions on keeping or wasting food (Quested et al. 2011, 2013). Retail chains can be involved by providing tips to consumers to lower food waste; for example, in the UK, the Co-operative Group supermarket chain has begun printing tips for improving food storage and increasing shelf life of produce directly onto their reusable plastic bags (Lipinski et al. 2013). Advertising should also be adjusted to encourage consumers to buy the right amount of food rather than being lured to buy more than they need through promotions such as “2 for 1” deals. Instead, price reductions (i.e., 50% off) could be used to encourage more sustainable consumption.

There is also a significant amount of food waste generated from purchasing or serving larger portions than necessary in restaurants and in the household. Larger portions increase the probability that a consumer will waste a portion of the food purchased (Lipinski et al. 2013). Serving larger portions is attractive to restaurants as it serves as a selling point that consumers are receiving a bargain for their money; however, this also contributes to issues of food waste and obesity (Lipinski et al. 2013). For example, in the USA, the average restaurant consumer will not finish 17% of the food they purchase and will leave 55% of the leftovers behind; this amounts to approximately 9% of all food purchased from a restaurant being disposed on site (Bloom 2011). One solution to this problem is to offer smaller portion sizes at lower prices, thus providing more options to those with smaller appetites (Lipinski et al. 2013).

However, this option is not possible at self-serve or buffet-style restaurants. In these cases, consumers should be encouraged to eat to their appetite (Lipinski et al. 2013). A study by Wansink and van Ittersum (2013) highlighted that food waste associated with self-serve restaurants or events is highly dependent on visual consumption norms, and thus behavior could be adjusted by changing these visual cues. It was noted that the size of the plate or dinnerware provides a visual anchor of the appropriate amount one should serve themselves and eat, and people will fill the plates to about the same amount (approximately 70% full) regardless of the size of the plate. Indeed, the study showed that Chinese buffet diners with larger plates served 52% more food, had 45% more food consumed, and wasted 135% more food than similar buffets with smaller plates. Other studies have shown that removing trays in cafeteria-style food service environments (so that consumers can only carry one plate at once) can similarly reduce food waste. By eliminating the use of trays in 25 US university dining halls, food waste was reduced by 25–30% (Aramark 2008). This therefore reduced economic losses for food service managers while also decreasing unnecessary overconsumption by consumers.

Household Food Waste

In developed countries, the main contributor to food waste is from households (Parfitt et al. 2010). For example, in 2010, UK households threw away approximately 7.2 million tonnes of food, which amounted to 30% of the total household waste stream; nearly 4.4 million tonnes of this waste was avoidable, and this avoidable waste constituted 12% of all food and drink entering the home (Quested and Parry 2011; Quested et al. 2013; WRAP 2011a). In response to this, consumer awareness campaigns have developed and are used to educate the general public about the issue of food waste and influence behaviors relating to food waste, encouraging prevention and sustainable disposal options.

One example is the UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) awareness campaign – “Love Food Hate Waste” – which engages manufacturers, retailers, and community groups in reducing food waste through interactive workshops and informational leaflets (WRAP n.d.). Indeed, while influencing the shifting of disposal behaviors (i.e., recycling or composting vs. landfilling) is much easier, reuse and waste minimization bring a much greater environmental benefit (Watson et al. 2008). Studies have shown that food waste prevention reduces greenhouse gas emissions by approximately eight times more than simply diverting this food waste from landfill to anaerobic digestion (Quested et al. 2011). Thus, there is a need to focus educational programs and policies on household food waste prevention rather than simply landfill diversion (Watson and Meah 2013).

However, understanding the behaviors and practices behind household food waste, and changing those behaviors, is complex. Food waste in households generally results by responding to the complicated and contradictory demands of everyday life (Evans 2011, 2012). Thus, food waste by the consumer results from numerous, interacting activities which lead to a separation between the actual activity and its consequences (Quested et al. 2013). Additionally, there is less social pressure associated with wasting food, as often it is not visible to neighbors or other community members, whereas other environmentally responsible actions such as recycling, reuse of carrier bags, or car use are generally more visible, thus creating an inherent social pressure to perform this activity (Quested et al. 2013). Finally, important social concerns such as food safety, family expectation of meals, and health are often on people’s minds when performing actions that result in food waste (Quested et al. 2013; Watson and Meah 2013). The anxiety associated with the competing moral imperatives of avoiding food waste as an environmental responsibility and ensuring food safety for one’s self and others as a social responsibility complicate the issue (Meah and Watson 2011; Watson and Meah 2013).

The behaviors relating to food waste are closely linked to provisioning of the home (Evans 2011, 2012). For example, it was found that people in four-person households generated approximately half the amount of food waste per capita than single-person households in the UK (WRAP 2009). This is likely due to the fact that provisioning for larger households can be easier, as food is often available only in (or is cheaper in) larger quantities and recipes tend to cater for larger groups (WRAP 2008, 2010, 2013).

Through extensive research exploring the link between behaviors and food waste in the UK, WRAP identified nine individual behaviors which could broadly decrease food waste (WRAP 2007, 2009, 2011b). These include planning meals in advance, checking levels of food in fridge/cupboard before shopping, making a shopping list, storing meat/cheese in appropriate packaging, storing apples/carrots in the fridge, using the freezer to extend shelf life of food, portioning rice and pasta, using leftovers, and using the “use-by” date labels on food (Quested et al. 2013).

However, getting people to adopt these strategies and change their behavior related to food waste is difficult, as the disposal of food is highly habitual since it is completed frequently and almost automatically by many (Darnton et al. 2011; Quested et al. 2013). Additionally, many people tend to underestimate the amount of food they waste and thus feel less incentive to engage in education on preventing food waste (Quested et al. 2011). Educational and awareness programs which target people during times in which they are more amenable to change (i.e., attending university or entering retirement) are a useful opportunity to break habits and reshape behaviors associated with food waste (Thompson et al. 2011; Quested et al. 2013).

Thus, to truly shape people’s behaviors toward food waste, it is important to understand the reasons why they would not want to waste food and emphasize those feelings. An in-depth qualitative study in the UK found that most people showed an innate resistance to wasting food not as a result of global citizenship (i.e., guilt from environmental impact or existence of food shortages elsewhere in the world), but rather from an expression of an ethic of thrift or the responsible and conservative use of resources (Watson and Meah 2013). For example, people in this study reported that they felt guilty wasting food because of wasted money and time they spent purchasing and preparing it. While Watson and Meah (2013) saw thrift expressed throughout a wide range of age groups, Quested et al. (2013) especially saw this attitude that “wasting food is just wrong” in the 65+ age group. This age group generated approximately 25% less waste per capita than the rest of the population in the UK, and the main reason identified for this was due to attitudes of thrift (Quested et al. 2013). These attitudes are likely more prominent in this age group due to influences of food rationing during the Second World War and more school education relating to cooking and food management during their formative years (Quested et al. 2013).

This research therefore shows that educational programs aiming to influence consumers to decrease the amount of food they waste should focus not on themes of climate change or food security but should rather seek opportunities to enable people to act with thriftiness (Watson and Meah 2013). For example, holding “leftovers” cooking demonstrations or canning/fermenting workshops could be ideal ways to draw in consumers and shape food waste behaviors; these strategies are already used by WRAP’s “Love Food Hate Waste” program. Bringing more “home economic” classes and extracurricular activities back to school education could increase behaviors of thrift and decrease food waste. Thus, it is important that educational programs and policies understand the cultural reasoning behind wasting or not wasting food to appropriately shift consumer behavior.

Redistribution of Food

Many anti-food waste movements and organizations focus on redistributing the waste that supermarkets or consumers seemingly inevitably incur. In these cases, wasted food that is still safe to eat and of good quality, but that will no longer be sold in the supermarket or is no longer wanted from a consumer, is redistributed to other people who want the food, generally to food insecure and homeless populations. This can occur internationally (through food aid) or within communities (with food banks).

Food Aid

In the USA, farmers would suffer from chronically low prices due to overproduction of major food commodities (i.e., wheat, corn, beans) if not for food aid programs (Gille 2013). The US government buys surpluses from farmers and distributes them in the Global South, in areas of food insecurity. While on the surface, this may seem like an ideal way to redistribute food which might otherwise be wasted (by either being left in the ground by farmers or thrown away by US consumers), food aid to developing countries comes with its own political agenda and has been used as a mechanism of control (Evans et al. 2013). Food aid often creates dependency and undermines local agricultural systems in receiving countries (Gille 2013; Polman 2010; McKeon 2015). Indeed, a study from Thurow and Kilman (2009) showed that in Ethiopia, a nation suffering from food insecurity, many farmers are actually unable to sell their produce, as local food products are undermined by cheaper US food aid products. In many cases, food is left wasted, unharvested in the field, or rotting in warehouses due to the so-called US support (Thurow and Kilman 2009; Gille 2013). Thus, local farming is becoming unprofitable, and much of the food produced is going to waste rather than being sold.

To combat the food waste and financial losses due to food aid undermining local agriculture in the Global South, the USA and other developed nations should also provide cash payments alongside food aid. Cash payments would allow for the local purchase of food, stimulating economies and agricultural production in the Global South (Barrett et al. 2011; Sen 1995). Since this has been resisted by the US agricultural lobby for the most part, there is a need for US citizens to place pressure on their elected officials to reexamine the implications of food aid and how it can truly be used to combat global food insecurity.

Food Banks

Food banks are charity organizations which accept donated food and redistribute it to those in need, such as food insecure or homeless citizens. Sourced food often comes from surplus/waste food from the food industry and public donations (Ronson and Caraher 2016). Food banks have historically been common in New Zealand and North America; however, they only first became common in the UK in 2007 after the financial crash and subsequent government policies of austerity caused charity organizations to assume more responsibility for welfare type programs (Ronson and Caraher 2016). At this point in history, food banks have now become a norm in societies of the developed world (Gentilini 2013). Like food aid, food banks appear to be providing essential benefits to society, by redistributing unwanted food to those who need it. However, the growing spread and general existence of food banks show that, in fact, these facilities are not productive in actually solving the problem they were created to solve (alleviating food insecurity and hunger in communities). Indeed, food banks offer a short-term, “Band-Aid” approach to tackling food insecurity by addressing the signs and by-products of the main problem of hunger rather than its social causes (Marmot 2010). In this way, food banks will continue to grow and require more and more resources to provide only a temporary solution to hunger. Because these organizations are generally voluntary or faith-based, criticism can seem socially unacceptable (Seibel 1989, 1996). However, it is important for the public to recognize that the existence of food banks is a symbol not of charity but of society’s failure to hold their government accountable for dealing with issues like hunger, food insecurity, and poverty (Winne 2008).

Food banks exist to fill a space where the state and market have failed. Their existence is attractive to politicians, as it allows them to shift responsibility from providing essential government services to voluntary organizations and the civil society (Seibel 1989, 1996). This further cements the dominance of the prevailing capitalist social and economic system (Seibel 1989). Food banks are also attractive to volunteers by providing them with a feeling of “giving back” and to donating corporations by providing a marketing platform of “community involvement” (Ronson and Caraher 2016). However, they do not provide many benefits for those actually using food banks (Caraher and Cavicchi 2014; Booth and Whelan 2014). Visits to food banks generally bring only a temporary, unhealthy, and humiliating relief from hunger for food bank users; the experience does not usually provide options to improve social position or self-esteem (Saul and Curtis 2013; van der Horst et al. 2014).

Therefore, food banks can offer a food waste management solution while also helping to alleviate food insecurity and food poverty, but they should be managed in a way that provides real benefits to users. For example, in Brazil, the right to food is guaranteed in the constitution (Rocha 2014). The Brazilian government upholds this requirement by establishing public food banks which provide food to those in need as well as providing social and healthcare services. Additionally, the Brazilian national food plan provides funding for the purchase of food from local family farms to be used in community kitchens and food banks, thus providing a source of fresh and healthy produce for food banks rather than just unwanted food (Rocha 2014). Other options to redistribute food which would otherwise be wasted include pay-as-you-feel supermarkets and junk food cafés, such as The Real Junk Food Project in the UK. These institutions source waste food, either through public donations or more commonly from local supermarkets, and redistribute them through a supermarket setting or as a prepared meal in a café. In both cases, these will be pay-as-you-feel, so that food insecure individuals can obtain nutritious food in a socially acceptable way and others can provide donations for the charity. Still, it is vital that citizens put pressure on their governments to take responsibility for issues of food insecurity and hunger by creating and funding welfare programs, rather than shoving the responsibility on often underfunded voluntary organizations.


The complex reasons behind why nearly one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted are evident throughout the food supply chain, from production to consumption. While there are many practical strategies which have been discussed to reduce food loss and waste (i.e., improving storage facilities, starting food waste awareness campaigns), these do not solve the underlying causes of why loss and waste still exist to such a large extent in today’s world. The largest barrier to eliminating food loss and waste is the corporate control of the global food system. Within this globalized, neoliberal political economy, waste brings profit and power; whether from corporations encouraging unnecessary and unhealthy overconsumption through marketing campaigns or the governments of the developed world encouraging overproduction of food commodities to use as a mechanism of control through food aid, the global food system relies on creating and profiting from waste. Thus, to truly put an end to food waste, citizens of the world must organize to reshape and rebuild local and global food systems in a way that builds food sovereignty, respects nature, nurtures health and well-being of people, and ensures the right to food for all people in a sustainable and resilient manner.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ChemistryUniversity of SheffieldSheffieldUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Datu Buyung Agusdinata

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