Food waste

(adapted from MacRae et al., 2016)


General data on food waste in Canada

A brief overview of major forces contributing to food waste

Supply chain waste

Food waste reduction frameworks

Efficiency initiatives

Substitution initiatives

Redesign initiatives

Financing the transition



Since the early days of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global pressure has been exerted on the food system to increase production. This has conveniently dovetailed with capitalist growth expectations and complied with an international agriculture research agenda, most famously exposited by the work surrounding the Green Revolution. But a significant consequence of this drive to increase output is that much of it is wasted. As such, food waste is the Achilles Heel of the modern food system, revealing many of its structural weaknesses. Contrary to the food system’s efficiency rhetoric, it is actually highly inefficient from the perspective of resources consumed, pollution (including GHG emissions) and food insecurity.

In earlier efforts to govern global food, such inefficiencies were on the radar. Parfitt et al. (2010) outline how post-harvest losses, a key element of the waste story, were originally a big part of the FAO mandate. Despite this early preoccupation, almost no research was conducted on reducing widespread post-harvest losses in the 1990s. The FAO had only one small office addressing post-harvest losses, miniscule compared to the institutional resources for yield improvement (Smil, 2004). Only recently has the FAO recaptured an interest in such matters, having recognized that while one-third of food is wasted or lost, 870 million people experience malnutrition and hunger (Gustavsson, Cederberg, Sonesson, van Otterdijk, & Meybeck, 2011).  The 2008 food price shocks also contributed to renewed focus on food waste (Evans, Campbell, & Murcott, 2013).

Although no full accounting of the implications for production have been conducted, Smil (2004) roughly calculated that eliminating staple grain post-harvest losses would save enough food to almost meet the caloric needs of the population of India. Consumers in North America and Europe waste almost as much food each year (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes) (United Nations Environment Programme, 2013). Van Zanten et al. (2023), modelled food system circularity for resource optimization in Europe and concluded that reductions of 71% in agricultural land use were possible, with a 29% per capita reduction in agricultural GHG emissions, all the while meeting  European self-sufficient  food system targets. These savings in agricultural land could also then feed an additional 767 million people outside the EU. Abdulla, Martin, Gooch, and Jovel (2013), examining food waste in Canada, concluded that three adults waste enough in a month to feed a fourth adult. Gooch et al. (2019) concluded conservatively that avoidable food waste would feed all of Canada for 5 months. Messner et al. (2020) summarize data that leads to a conclusion that the drive to increase production is more about generating more waste (and human overconsumption) than feeding people since we already produce 20% more than is required to meet the nutritional requirements of the global population. This section takes as a viable premise that significant state interventions to prevent food waste are warranted by the need to increase food availability, decrease pressures to increase yields, and reduce pollution and resource consumption.

Food waste[1] is a broad term requiring some disaggregation. Direct food waste is only one dimension of the resource waste that characterizes the Canadian food system. Essentially, food waste includes any edible food that is not consumed by humans, and human inedible foods that are not used as animal feed or in industrial processes and composting.  Such waste also squanders the resources used to produce, process, transport, store and prepare the food.  For example, “one calorie of food saved can result in a sevenfold reduction in the energy use across its lifecycle” (Gooch, Felfel, & Marenick, 2010, p. 91).  There are also inefficiencies in the food system, augmenting the waste of the resources on which food production and distribution depends. As discussed in other change areas under Goal 5, land is used inefficiently, energy input / output ratios regarding food production vs consumption are poor, animal feeding regimes compete with human edible foods, cooling and heating systems are energy inefficient, and food is consumed in excess of biological requirements (luxus consumption), leading to health problems that individuals and the state pay for in lost productivity and health care expenditures (Goals 1 and 4).

While there has been some recent progress reducing direct food waste, often undertaken by private firms (see Uzea, Gooch, & Sparling, 2014 for Canadian examples), no effective initiatives have been put in place that reduce overproduction and overconsumption (Smil, 2004). Unfortunately, much of what has recently been implemented is misdirected or ineffective given the scale of the problem, a theme we return to later in this section.  Program announcements in the 2019 federal budget (see Federal Government) are particularly weak, with a food waste reduction challenge issued to food processors, retail and food service involving $20 million over 5 years and some minor tinkering with internal federal allocations.  Funding will start being allocated in 2021.

This situation exists despite the general recognition that food waste creates negative economic, environmental, and social impacts. The straight economic value of wasted food  represents an annual loss of $750 billion globally  (Gustavsson et al., 2011), and in Canada $49 billion per year[2] (Gooch et al., 2019), just for avoidable food waste that humans could consume.  Gooch and Felfel (2014) estimated that the embedded value of Canadian food waste is actually at least $107 billion / year because of all the other inputs wasted. Food that is wasted globally is responsible for the release of 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and a global water loss of 675 trillion litres per year (Miller, 2012).  Gooch et al. (2019) concluded that food waste contributes 56.7 Million tonnes of CO2e in Canada. In the U.S. alone, the energy contained in wasted food represents approximately two percent of national annual energy consumption (Cuellar & Webber, 2010). Additionally, 1.4 billion hectares of land, or 28% of the world’s agricultural area, is used annually to produce food that is wasted (FAO, 2013). There is also recognition of the significant social implications of food waste.

On 19 January 2012, the European Parliament passed a resolution to tackle food waste and called on the European Commission (EC) to halve current volumes of food waste by 2025 (EC estimates suggest 90 million tonnes are produced annually in the EU). Significantly, in the discussions surrounding these movements the emphasis is on the perversity of wasting food when more than 70 million people in the EU live below the poverty line and 16 million depend on food aid to stave off malnutrition. Here, therefore, we see food waste tied intimately to food poverty. (Evans et al., 2013, p. 18)

Although there is significant imprecision in food waste estimates, by any measure they are enormous and shocking[3]. The most frequently cited study, the FAO’s Global Food Losses and Food Waste, estimates that roughly one-third, or 1.3 billion tons per year, of edible parts of food produced for human consumption are wasted globally (Gustavsson et al., 2011). Research to date mostly focuses on avoidable (e.g., bruised fruits, leftovers), rather than unavoidable (e.g., bone, fruit pits) food waste (Gooch et al., 2010), so by the approach taken here, the estimates would be even higher. Indeed, total food waste may be over 50% of everything that starts out on a farm, with  both Canada (Gooch et al., 2019) and the U.S. (Stuart, 2009) being nations where levels may be this high .

Patterns of food waste differ between developing countries and industrialized countries. Higher incidences of production, distribution and storage losses are characteristic of developing countries, whereas industrialized countries generate much higher levels of food waste at the retail and consumer ends of the supply chain (Parfitt, Barthel, & Macnaughton, 2010).

The focus is on comprehensive and integrated changes to policies, programmes and legislation/regulation at the level of the state. Such interventions are clearly only a piece of a wide ranging set of initiatives to be undertaken by numerous actors – from food chain firms to individual eaters – but more attention has recently been paid to private firm than regulatory changes[4].


[1] Some analysts distinguish food loss from food waste.  In this categorization, food loss refers to a decrease in food quantity or quality of edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption. It occurs during the production, post-harvest and processing stages in the food supply chain. Food waste, on the other hand, refers to a subset of food loss that occurs specifically at later stages in the food supply chain, primarily retail and final consumption (Parfitt et al., 2010). However, we do not employ this distinction as it implies that the forces creating food loss are largely beyond our control which is inaccurate (Gille, 2013). We elaborate on this below.

[2] Gooch et al. (2010, p. 2) noted that the quantifiable amount of food waste represents “terminal food waste”. Gooch & Felfel’s (2014) revised estimates were based on new data on waste in sectors not previously accounted for, particularly seafood capture to processing, institutions and international catering.

[3] A range of methodological approaches has been used to examine food waste, including: archaeological excavations of landfills (Harrison, Rathje, & Huges, 1975; Rathje & Murphy, 1992); applying loss assumptions to national estimates of food supplies (Economic Research Service, 2011; Buzby & Hyman, 2012); household waste composition studies (WRAP U.K., 2011; Parizeau et al., 2021); structured interviews, and many others. The varieties of methodological approaches combined with differing interpretations of food waste conflate estimates across countries and make identifying trends more challenging. To date, the majority of food waste research is conducted in industrialized countries and tends to explore the changing roles and preferences of retailers and consumers (Griffin, Sobal, & Lyson, 2009).

[4] For example, the work of WRAP in the UK focuses particularly on the private sector, although the organization does receive government funding.


Redesign initiatives

At this stage, waste minimization is completely integrated with demand-supply coordination.  For details, see Goal 2, Demand - Supply Coordination.

It is also important to acknowledge the deeply cultural and pyscho-social attraction to abundance, and associated fear of deprivation.  For more on how to address this, see Goal 3, Integrating food into educational processes, Redesign.