Food waste, what’s in a name?

At BFC we talk about food waste a lot. But what exactly is food waste? It may seem like a trivial question. Surely, the unsold bread that ends up in the bin of the supermarket is considered food waste. But what about the banana peel that you throw away? Or the potato fields that are affected by disease? When discussing food waste, it is important to know what exactly is meant by the term ‘food waste’. It is not easy to give a clear definition, and it will depend on who you ask.

Let’s start at the production level. Food production is a complicated business. Diseases, pests, soil, and weather have a big influence on the final yield. Farmers have to make decisions based on several factors that are difficult to predict. Good starting material is the first step. When you plant bananas in Sweden, you know that your production will fail. The crop should be suitable for the environment and capabilities of the farm. After planting the starting material, the crop is managed during the growing season to achieve a good yield. For example, a farmer can use fertilizer to increase plant growth, irrigation during a period of drought, and use pesticides to reduce disease. However, there are economic and ecological limits to the use of these resources. Because of this, a yield gap exists. The yield gap is the amount of food that is lost due to biotic and abiotic factors during the growing season.    

In the next step of the food system, we see food loss. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations makes a distinction between food loss and food waste. Their definition of food loss is: “Food loss is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers.” Food loss starts post-harvest on the farm and ends just before the retailer level. The definition regards food as edible parts intended for human consumption. For example, this means that if food produced for human consumption is used as animal feed, it is considered food loss. There are many reasons for food loss: contamination, physical damage, inadequate storage, pests etc.

Finally, at the end of the food system, we can see food waste. “Food waste refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.” This essentially means that after the food is ready for the retailer, any food reduction will be seen as food waste. In practice, it includes amongst others the food thrown away at the supermarkets, restaurants and at households. This is probably why as a consumer you are most familiar with the term food waste. 

The definitions mentioned above are seen from a food-focused approach and only include the edible parts of produce. At the production of food, there is also a lot of non-edible production. A waste-focused approach looks at what happens with the plant parts that are not eaten. Plant biomass can be used as a resource for various applications. It can be used as feed, energy production, compost, or other ways to utilize the biomaterial. As it refers to non-edible parts, it is usually not included when people talk about food losses and waste.

Comparing research data on the topic of food losses and wastage can be difficult because the terms are not strictly defined. Some researchers will include the yield gap as part of food loss, whereas others separate the two. Also, it’s not always easy to define what food is edible and what is non-edible. In languages other than English there may be differences as well. Keep this in mind if you read about the topic. The modern food system is big and complex, and food reduction happens in every step. Only in the final few steps, it is referred to as food waste. This gives some perspective to the notion that households are responsible for most of the food waste; a lot of the food reduction is just simply not called food waste.   

Overview of food reduction in the food system. Made by Paul van der Werf, 2017.

Written by Mark Melchior


HLPE, 2014. Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome 2014.

van der Werf, P., Gilliland, J.A. (2017, May). A systematic review of food losses and food waste generation in developed countries. In Proceedings of the Institution of Civil  engineers-Waste and Resource Management (Vol. 170, No. 2, pp. 66-77). Thomas Telford Ltd.

Published by bruisedfoodclubuppsala

Non-profit organisation that saves food, reduces food waste and hunger and promotes sustainable food consumption.

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