FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

Food loss or food waste? Anything but the same, says FAO expert

FAO agri-food economist Stjepan Tanic walks through the fundamentals: the difference between food loss and food waste, and why it matters for Europe and Central Asia.

Food loss and food waste sound like synonyms. What’s the difference?

Imagine how everything we eat travels across a food chain, a complex journey that stretches from farm to fork. FAO studies show that an astounding one third of all the food we produce for human consumption never actually reaches a fork. Whether we categorize uneaten food as “lost” or “wasted” depends on when it falls off the food chain.

Most people have seen food waste in their everyday lives. At the end of the food chain, consumers may throw out excess food, let it spoil, or develop other behaviors that waste food unnecessarily. Food “loss” actually occurs earlier in the food chain and usually behind the scenes. Due to inefficiencies in food production and processing, food can lose nutritional value or even need to be discarded before it reaches the consumer. Both cases are considered food loss.

Look at it this way: more than 40 percent of food losses and waste in developing countries occurs at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in industrialized countries, more than 40 percent of food losses and waste occur at retail and consumer levels.  Understanding when food loss or waste occurs is important because it affects how we build more sustainable food systems.

So you’re not just splitting hairs.

No. In fact, you can actually see the difference across Europe and Central Asia. In general, the European Union and other high-income countries in the region have significantly greater levels of food waste. These countries are launching consumer awareness campaigns and other initiatives to reduce food waste.

Middle- and low-income countries aren’t wasting nearly as much food – in part due to lower supply, lower purchasing power, and less demanding food quality preferences. Instead, they struggle predominantly with food loss issues.

So what are the weak spots in our region’s food value chains?

Farmers and processers are using outdated machinery and technologies, and food production systems remain unorganized and fragmented. The lack of access to specialized equipment for transportation, processing, cooling and storage only adds to the extensive food loss at the harvest, post-harvest and storage stages of the food supply chain.

The private sector has the potential to introduce technologies and practices needed to improve the efficiency of food supply chains and minimize food loss. But in order to promote investment in food loss and waste reduction ventures, governments first need to create stable, low-risk business environments with transparent and consistent regulations.

Policymakers may also consider developing programs that support producer organizations like cooperatives. Encouraging small-scale farmers to cooperate can increase their access to credit and help them deliver their product to new markets as efficiently as possible.

What can Europe and Central Asia do to solve this problem?

Ending consumer food waste in high-income countries doesn’t mean people in low-income countries will suddenly have more to eat. But reducing both loss and waste can increase incomes and improve access to food for vulnerable groups and in at-risk regions.

We can also eliminate the deep environmental footprint of food loss and waste. Every year, the world uses a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River – and adds 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere – just to produce the food that we never eat.

Whether you’re counting kilograms, euros or calories, the threat of food loss and waste is clear and leaders in Europe and Central Asia are intent on making progress. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has addressed this issue and the European Parliament has called for member states to reduce losses and waste by 50 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, FAO will continue to support regional efforts in this arena through the global SAVE FOOD initiative.

09 February, 2015, Budapest, Hungary