What’s the Difference Between Food Waste and Food Loss?

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With food waste now an important dialogue in the food industry, and a growing area for tech innovation, it’s a good time to lay out the differences between “food waste” and “food loss.”

One third of the world’s food — roughly 1.3 billion tons — goes to waste each year, but across the globe, it is lost or wasted in different ways, at at different points across the food supply chain. That’s where it’s useful to know the difference between “loss” and “waste.”

According to Think.Eat.Save, a partnership between the United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food loss refers to food that spoils early on in the supply chain, before it ever lands in on grocery store shelves. Think post-harvest, processing, and distribution stages.

Reasons for this food loss can include poor crop harvest, animal deaths, spillage, transportation issues, and insufficient storage. For example, access to reliable and consistent refrigeration is a major issue for many developing countries, and a huge contributor to lost food.

Food waste, on the other hand, refers to food that is ready and edible for consumption but gets discarded before that happens. It usually, though not exclusively, happens further down the supply chain, at consumer-facing stages like restaurants, grocery stores, and in consumers’ homes.

At these consumer-facing levels, food waste can be anything from grocery stores chucking unsold inventory to restaurants throwing out unused inventory and the average person losing items in the back of their home fridge. The bulk of the world’s food waste happens in Europe and North America right now. The good news, as we outlined in a recent Spoon Plus report, is that curbing consumer food waste is a much higher priority topic in 2020 than it was even a few years ago, and tech companies, food businesses, and many others are working to educate more consumers on their food waste habits.

Both food waste and food loss have economic, environmental, and human consequences. And while there is some overlap between the two, food waste and food loss have to be curbed with different solutions — hence the importance of understanding the difference between the two.

For example, introducing smarter fridge appliances or storage systems might help a family in the U.S. curb their food waste and save money, but doing so won’t suddenly improve the disorganized and fragmented food production system in, say, parts of Central Asia. That has to be dealt with by providing more up-to-date equipment and storage techniques and processes, and while the private sector can help, at least some government involvement is needed in order to enact widespread change.

Even so, there is plenty of activity in the private sector from companies fighting both food loss and food waste. In Nigeria, for instance, a company called ColdHubs makes solar-powered “walk-in” cold rooms food producers can use to store their food. Golden Harvest, a business group in Bangladesh, has partnered with USAID to develop the country’s first cold chain network and keep meat, fish, and produce from going bad in the earlier stages of the supply chain.

Over on the food waste side, a number of startups and major corporations in the food industry are working to help North American and European businesses and consumers curb food waste. That includes everything from Samsung and LG’s smart fridges that track food inventory to Winnow’s smart scales that track food waste in commercial kitchens.

Neither food loss nor food waste are simple problems to fix. Technology could — and already does areas — play a central role here in creating more efficient supply chains, equipping stakeholders with better tools, and educating consumers on better ways to manage the way they eat.

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