Apples and Oranges Food Waste


Here are a couple of clichés. “Measure twice, cut once.” “Don’t compare apples and oranges.” Both are appropriate in my mind when quantifying food waste. When talking about how much food is wasted, it makes sense to use the same metric and/or definition of food waste. Can a single organization simply declare that one quarter to one third of all food produced worldwide is wasted?

A study done for the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association shows that the US Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the European Union’s FUSIONS (a project aiming to reduce food waste in Europe) all define food waste in different ways.

The study titled “On the Measurement of Food Waste” asks three questions:

“First, how confident can we be in extant estimates of the quantity of food waste, given the unsatisfactory definitions and measurement issues? Second, how confident can we be in extant estimates of the value or cost of food waste, given that many such estimates rely on retail prices, when food is often wasted well before the retail stage? Third, from a conceptual perspective, what are the points of intervention for policy during the life cycle of a typical food item, and are potential policy outcomes at those intervention points interdependent?

According to the study, in 2016 the EPA estimated the quantity of food waste in the United States to be 35 million tons. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in 2011 it was 103 million tons. The paper considers this to be unacceptable. Sound, uniform measurements will form the foundations for sound policy making.

“First, we provide a precise definition of food waste that focuses on food actually wasted rather than on food that is merely removed from the supply chain. Second, we provide a systematic way to think about the cost of food waste which, much like the use of value added in calculating an economy’s gross domestic or national product, solves the problem of overvaluation of food wasted due to double counting. Third, we document the various points in the life cycle of a typical food item at which policy makers can intervene, and identify interdependencies between these points of policy intervention.”

The study goes on to do just that in extreme, detailed calculations. You can find the link here.

It does not preach or recommend any specific policy when it comes to handling food waste. But there may be an underlying warning from the authors that inconsistent measurements and definitions of food waste could lead to flawed courses of action.

What do you think? Is it time to introduce a uniform method of measuring food waste? What would be the proper metrics and definitions? MSW_bug_web

  • David Tonjes.

    See our article published in Environmental Science and Technology 49924):13946-13953 where we found that waste sorts result in an estimate of 14.7% of disposed residential, commercial, and municipal wastes (MSW) being food waste — which works out to 0.615 lbs/person/day, or about 35 million tons per year.


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