Food loss and food waste

A just and sustainable food system will limit the amount of food that is wasted and lost. This reduces wasted resources that are used to produce food that ends up uneaten, and keeps waste out of landfills.

When talking about food waste and food loss, it’s important to know where they occur. “Food loss” occurs in the food supply chain before food reaches retailers, food service providers, and consumers. This includes harvesting, transporting, and storing foods. “Food waste” occurs when edible food is discarded by retailers or consumers.

Globally, an estimated 1/3 of food produced is lost each year. This represents 1.4 billion hectares of agricultural land, 20% of the world’s freshwater consumption, and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In higher-income countries, most of this waste is related to consumer behavior and attitudes, including poor planning, confusion over best-by dates, and a desire for food that is perfect in shape and appearance. Retailers can further add to food waste by purchasing more food that they expect to sell, as having empty shelves is seen as a negative.


The goal should be to reduce food waste as much as possible. However, when waste does occur, it can be rescued and shared with others. Locally in the Twin Cities, Second Harvest Heartland has a Food Rescue program that works with retail, agricultural, and industrial partners to take good food (fresh, shelf-stable, and commercially prepared) that would otherwise be thrown out and redistribute it to shelters, food shelves and meal programs. During the 2018 Super Bowl, this program recovered over 150,000 pounds of food.


Many people believe that food waste is simply a fact of life, but that need not be the case. Here are some actions you can take to reduce food waste:

  • Donate or share excess food. One study in London found that a local food sharing app diverted 91 tons of food over an 18 month period, resulting in between 87 and 156 fewer tons of CO2 emissions (Makov, Shepon, Krones, Gupta, & Chertow, 2020). Your excess food can be shared with neighbors and community members or local food shelves.
  • Purchase less desirable foods such as “ugly” produce and foods near their “best by” dates and let grocers know you are willing to do so.
  • Consider working directly with a farmer at farmers’ markets or through a CSA. Working directly with farmers can improve efficiencies and reduce food loss.
  • Look into correct storage and preservation of foods so they last longer. Label foods that you’ve refrigerated or frozen and move older foods to the front of your refrigerator so you’re less likely to forget about them.
    • Dakota County has an excellent guide with links to tools for reducing food waste.
    • Save the Food is a great website with recipes for using food that still edible but not at it’s freshest, meal planning advice, and extensive information on storage of many different foods.
  • Compost as a last resort. Composting diverts waste away from landfills, but does not reduce the waste itself. Composting can sometimes let people “off the hook” for wasting food because they see composting as a way of making up for it.

Continue to the next section:


  • Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R., & Meybeck, A. (2011). Global food losses and food waste: Extent, causes and prevention. Rome: FAO.
  • Hebrok, M., & Boks, C. (2017). Household food waste: drivers and potential intervention points for design-an extensive review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 151, 380–392.
  • Makov, T., Shepon, A., Krones, J., Gupta, C., & Chertow, M. (2020). Social and environmental analysis of food waste abatement via the peer-to-peer sharing economy. Nature Communications, 11, 1156.
  • Minor, T., Astill, G., Skobiansky, S., Thornsbury, S., Buzby, J., Hitaj, C., Kantor, L., Kuchler, F., Ellison, B., Mishra, A., Roe, B., & Richards, T. (2020). Economic drivers of food loss at the farm and pre-retail sectors: A look at the produce supply chain in the United States. Economic Information Bulletin, EIB-216.