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Less is more: reducing food losses and waste

Felicitas Schneider | 21.06.2022

MA Institute of Market Analysis
BW Institute of Farm Economics

The production of safe food is resource-intensive. Nevertheless, one third of the quantities produced are thrown away. What strategies can help to prevent food loss and waste on their way from the fields to our plates?

Estimated 1.3 billion tons of edible food is wasted worldwide per year. This corresponds to nearly one third of all edible groceries produced. Almost every one of us throws something away occasionally – at home, at school or at work. How much does it cost ourselves and what can we do about it in the household? Do producers, retailers and the catering trade also waste food? What happens to discarded food and why is discarded food harmful for our environment? Could these food products be passed on to the hungry? How do other countries treat this problem in comparison to Germany?

These and many other questions arise in connection with food losses and waste. We would like to explain some of them in more detail here.

Loss or waste – is there any difference?

There is still no uniform worldwide definition of what should be understood by the term “food loss” or “food waste”. In general, the definition of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is used to describe those in more detail.

“Food loss” describes the loss of edible food wherever food is produced or processed. They occur mainly at the beginning of the value chain.

By contrast, “food waste” tends to occur at the end of the supply chain, in the retail trade, within catering trade and with consumers. Food losses and waste are measured in mass, i.e. in kilograms.

So far, there is no overview of what strategies individual countries are developing against food losses and waste and what methods they use to measure them. For this reason, interdisciplinary staff members from several Thünen Specialist Institutes are making themselves available as guest editors for a special issue of the journal "Sustainability". They call for papers to be submitted with immediate effect until May 15th, 2021 latest addressing "National Food Loss and Waste Prevention Strategies and Monitoring approaches – an interdisciplinary challenge for Decision Makers, Researchers and Practice".

What are the environmental, social and economic effects of measures against food loss and waste in general? And how can this be measured? Methods for evaluating the sustainability of prevention measures are only used to a limited extent, and our employees contribute to a worldwide professional discussion with their research work. A dissertation project at the Thünen Institute of Market Analysis evaluates regulatory, cooperative and market-based environmental policy measures to reduce food waste.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the so-called Agenda 2030 . It formulates 17 Sustainable Development Goals with a total of 169 sub goals for sustainable global development.

Sub goal 12.3 of Agenda 2030 calls for "halving per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030 and reducing food losses along the production and supply chain, including post-harvest losses". Whether these goals will be achieved is to be demonstrated by 2030 by calculating two indicators: The Food Loss Index will cover losses from harvest to pre-retail, the Food Waste Index will cover the levels of retail, out-of-home consumption and households.

Germany has also committed itself to this and in February 2019 presented a national strategy aimed at halving food waste among consumers and retailers by 2030 and reducing it in other areas.

The UN have proclaimed September 29th as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. From 2020 onwards, the aim is to raise awareness of food waste worldwide every year on September 29th.

Estimated 1.3 billion tons of edible food are thrown away worldwide per year. This corresponds to around one third of all edible food produced. These shocking figures were published in a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2011.

As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the World, the FAO is working intensively on measures to help prevent food losses and waste. Particularly in developing and emerging countries, innovative solutions are needed to counter structural and economic disadvantages.

On behalf of the FAO, international researchers are developing guidelines, for example, on how freshly caught fish can be dried in the sun with the help of local building materials and simple constructions, without wild animals eating it or the flood washing the catch back into the water. Supra-regional FAO platforms support the local partners in implementing prevention measures.

Together with Messe Düsseldorf, the FAO has launched the SAVE FOOD campaign. At regular events, managers from industry, research, politics and NGOs from all over the world exchange their experiences and ideas on how to avoid food losses and waste.

The so-called G20 consists of 19 industrialized and emerging countries as well as the European Union. Together they represent almost 67 % of the world's population and 75 % of world trade. More than 85 % of the global gross domestic product is generated in the G20 countries.

The Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS), a consultative committee advising the G20 Minister of Agriculture, launched an initiative on food losses and waste in its Communiqué 2015. As a representative of Germany, the Thünen Institute is also a member of MACS and has been coordinating the activities of the initiative ever since. This enables us to contribute our knowledge on an international level.

In some EU member states, scientists have been researching for many years how to measure food losses and waste. Some use existing statistics, others survey households and some sort domestic waste. The data collected is an important basis for calculating where and how much food loss and waste occurs and what measures would be appropriate to prevent it. However, because various definitions are used and food losses and waste are recorded using different methods, it is difficult or impossible to compare country data. In addition, very little information is available for some EU countries on the amount of food losses and waste generated.

In order to be able to work together on similar issues, the EU Commission launched the EU Platform on Food Losses and Waste in 2016. All EU member states, some international organisations (such as FAO, OECD or UNEP) and many company or consumer interest groups participate in the platform. Employees of the Thünen Institute contribute their expertise in meetings and in the documents prepared. All presentations and results are publicly available in English.

The revision of the EU Waste Framework Directive in 2018 created a uniform definition of food waste in the EU. Only food that becomes waste in the legal sense is considered food waste. This means that fruit and vegetables that are not harvested, as well as unsold bread that is used as animal feed, are not counted. In contrast to the United Nations, the EU does not have a definition of 'food loss'.

In September 2019, a so-called Delegated Decision published a common framework for the measurement of food waste in the EU. For each level of the value chain, a selection of methods is specified which are permitted for measurement. Each individual EU member state can choose which method is most suitable for it, which means that a country comparison will continue to be almost impossible. An Implementing Decision was adopted in December 2019, specifying the format and deadlines by which the collected information must be submitted to the Commission by each EU member state. From 2020, each EU member state must measure and report the amount of all food waste annually to the EU. The first deadline for submitting data for 2020 is June 2022.

In 2015, Germany committed itself to adhering to the United Nations' sustainability goals (Agenda 2030). This provides for a halving of per capita food waste in retail, catering trade and households by 2030. In addition, food losses and waste have to be reduced along the entire value chain.

Even before this agreement, the problem had been recognized in Germany. In scientific projects, private initiatives and innovative business models, measures that contribute to the avoidance of food waste were developed. Since the beginning of 2012, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) has been drawing Germany's attention to the issue of food waste with its "Too Good for the Bin" (“Zu gut für die Tonne ”, in german only) campaign.

A selection of avoidance measures and further information can be found on the BMEL website "Appreciating food" (“Lebensmittel wertschätzen ”, in german only). Activities from all German federal states are summarized there.

On 20 February 2019, the Federal Cabinet adopted the National Strategy for Reducing Food Waste presented by Federal Nutrition Minister Julia Klöckner. On behalf of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), Thünen Institute calculated the amount of all food waste in Germany for the year 2015 according to the specification of the EU – the so-called Baseline 2015. It was published in September 2019 and serves as a comparison year for the targets set in 2030. A first joint agreement in principle (in German only) between the BMEL and representatives of industry was signed on March 4th 2020. Joint activities to prevent food waste should make the Agenda 2030 goal of halving food waste among consumers and retailers by 2030 and reducing it in other areas achievable.

The United Nations have proclaimed September 29th as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. It took place for the first time in 2020. In Germany the day is embedded into the nationwide action week Germany saves food.


How food loss and waste can arise

An average foodstuff goes through about 33 hands before it can be inspected by the customer in the supermarket. Well-coordinated flows of goods enable a smooth process. Sometimes, however, a stone comes into the gearbox. This can also lead to food losses and waste.

How food loss and waste can arise

Searching for food in the garbage– who does that?

Not only homeless people search for food in waste bins. Some do it out of respect for food and criticism of society.

Searching for food in the garbage– who does that?

Food waste as an environmental pollutant

To what extent does German food waste pollute the environment? And how much must greenhouse gases be reduced so that we can meet the United Nations‘ goal of halving the per capita food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030?

Food waste as an environmental pollutant

Why many apples in the landfill spoil the climate

Large quantities of methane are released during the landfilling of food waste. This gas increases the greenhouse effect and should therefore be avoided.

Why many apples in the landfill spoil the climate

When food is left over and nobody else wants it - where to put it?

Food should be used sensibly. What is no longer edible for humans is suitable, for example, as feed for animals or as an energy source for biogas plants.

When food is left over and nobody else wants it - where to put it?

Discards in marine fisheries

Until a few years ago, fishers in EU waters were forced to discard fish if they had already exhausted their quota for this species or if the fish were too small. This rule was intended to protect stocks, but often had the opposite effect.

Discards in marine fisheries


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