Less is more: reducing food losses and waste


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. 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.

How do the United Nations contribute?

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".

Germany has also committed itself to this and is working on a national strategy to prevent food losses and waste.

The mission of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Estimated 1.3 billion tons of edible food are thrown away worldwide. 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.

What the largest industrialized and emerging countries are doing

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.

Community methods to be refined at EU level

Some EU member states have been researching for many years how food losses and waste can be measured. Some use existing statistics, others interview households and some conduct waste sorting analyses. The collected data is an important basis for calculating where and how much food losses and waste occur and what measures would be appropriate to prevent it. However, because food losses and waste are recorded by using different methods, it is difficult or impossible to compare country data. In addition, measurement data are not available for a number of areas yet, such as fruit and vegetables that are not harvested.

This issue is currently an important topic in the EU platform "Food Loss and Waste, Subgroup Measurement of Food Waste". When recording food waste in EU member states, a common approach has to be developed which, nevertheless, allows the different framework conditions of the countries to be taken into account. Employees of the Thünen Institute contribute their expertise in meetings and subsequent review processes of the documents produced.

Other interesting questions are discussed in other groups. The subgroup "Food Donations" develops proposals for a common legal and fiscal procedure for the transfer of surplus food to socially disadvantaged people. In the "Action and Implementation" sub-group, participants discuss ideas for prevention measures in practice.

Strategies against food losses and waste in Germany

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.