Putting a Dollar Value on Food Waste Estimates

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By Carol Dreibelbis

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about one-third—or 1.3 billion metric tons—of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste each year. While it is easy to recognize the enormity of this number, it is much more difficult to make sense of it in a useful way. An October 2012 study by Jean Buzby and Jeffrey Hyman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks to make food waste estimates more meaningful by attaching a dollar value.

Research from the USDA finds that Americans waste an average of US$544 worth of food per person per year. (Photo Credit: biocycle.net)

The study measures the value of food loss in the United States at the retail (“supermarkets, megastores like Walmart, and other retail outlets”) and consumer (“food consumed at home and away from home”) levels. Findings indicate that US$165.6 billion worth of food was lost at these levels in 2008. This translates to the loss of an average of US$1.49 worth of food per person per day—totaling about US$544 per person per year—at the retail and consumer levels. At the consumer level, alone, the average American wasted almost 10 percent of the amount spent on his or her food in 2008.

Food losses on this scale are concerning, especially when viewed in the context of a growing global population. As the study explains, “The United Nations predicts that the world population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and this growth will require at least a 70 percent increase in food production, net of crops used for biofuels.” Considering that a reduction of food loss at the consumer and retail levels by just one percent would keep US$1.66 billion worth of food in the food supply, limiting food waste could play a major role in feeding future populations.

Food waste also places an unnecessarily heavy burden on the environment. The production, processing, storage, and transportation of food that ultimately goes to waste still consumes natural resources and other inputs, while also releasing greenhouse gases and other pollutants that stem from the food system. For example, the study points out that the production of wasted food consumes over 25 percent of all freshwater used in the U.S. and around 300 million barrels of oil.

In light of the negative externalities associated with food waste, the authors of the study hope their findings will inform and initiate action to limit food waste. They write, “Understanding where and how much food is lost and the value of this loss is important information that industry and policymakers can use to raise awareness of the issue, reduce food waste, and increase the efficiency of the farm-to-fork food system.” Likewise, they note that per capita estimates may encourage consumers to be “more mindful of their daily and yearly food loss.”

The monetized food loss estimates presented in this study offer consumers, food industry representatives, and policymakers a concrete and comprehendible picture of U.S. food waste at the retail and consumer levels. By enabling individuals to understand their own contribution to the loss of 1.3 billion metric tons of food each year, the authors give a face to food waste.

What do you think it will take to reduce food waste at the local, national, or international scale? Please let us know in the comments section below. 

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s food and agriculture program. 

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