Understanding Food Waste

Food waste isn't just scraps of food we dispose of. Our entire food system, from production to consumption, generates so much waste that it accounts for 8% of global GHG emissions.
Food Supply Chain
Jan 17, 2024

When we think about food that goes to waste, we most likely first think of the economic and ethical implications that come with it. However, food waste doesn’t just bring those to surface; it is also an environmental problem. When food is wasted, so too are the energy and water resources used in its production, transportation, and packaging. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that approximately one-third of food intended for human consumption is lost or wasted. At a global level, food loss and waste generate annually 4.4 GtCO2eq, or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions. That number is almost equivalent to global road transport emissions. Needless to say, food waste is not a trivial concern and its true cost demands more awareness.

In this article, our goal is to deepen the understanding of food waste by discussing its prevalence in different parts of the food supply chain, how it impacts the environment and how you can mitigate food waste in different stages of your food supply chain with the help of LCA and SCM.

The definition of food waste and where it occurs

Perhaps most people associate food waste at consumption level when some food is discarded from our plates or simply when we have forgotten what’s in the back of our fridge until it’s gone bad. In fact, food is lost or wasted way before it ever reaches consumers.

There are two important terms to understand when it comes to food waste as defined by FAO:

  • Food loss refers primarily to food that is lost at various stages of the food supply chain before reaching the final consumer. For example, food loss occurs during the agriculture stage when some crops are damaged during harvest. Food loss also occurs when some crops are deemed not up to standard for cosmetic reasons such as color, size or shape. A good example would be for fruits or vegetables that get bruised during harvest or transport.
  • Food waste refers to food that is thrown away while still edible. This usually occurs at retail and consumer level.

There is also unavoidable food waste which refers to the naturally inedible scraps of food such as egg shells, bones and peelings. These are also taken into account under the larger ‘food waste’ category.

A stacked bar graph that shows where food is lost at different stages of the food supply chain for fruits and vegetables in different regions around the world.
This figure shows how when it comes to fruits and vegetables, losses in agricultural production dominate for all three industrialized regions, mostly due to post-harvest fruit and vegetable grading caused by quality standards set by retailers. | Source: FAO Global Food Losses and Food Waste report, 2011

Where most of food waste is generated

The phrase above is as ironic as its gets but you will encounter more and more of these ironies as you dive deep into environmental sustainability issues (e.g. growing reliance on carbon capture that perpetuates dependence on fossil fuels or decreasing fertilizers only to intensify pesticide use).

A stacked bar graph that shows per capita food losses and waste at consumption and pre-consumption stages, in different regions around the world.
Source: FAO Global Food Losses and Food Waste report, 2011

The extent of food wasted varies depending on crop type, level of economic development, as well as social and cultural practices in a region. To provide a high-level view, 40% of food waste occurs at the distribution or consumer level in developed regions such as North America and Europe, with similar levels in industrialized Asia. That figure significantly changes when it comes to developing nations where most of food waste occurs in the post-harvest and processing levels, highlighting the need for improving processing technologies for perishable food such as fruits and vegetables.  

Food waste in Europe

In Europe, most of food waste is generated at consumption level. According to data from 2016 by ADEME, of the 10 million tonnes of food lost and wasted each year, 33% occurs during the consumption phase, 32% during production, 21% during processing and 14% during distribution.

A pie chart that shows the share of food loss and waste in Europe across Production, Processing, Distribution, and Consumption stages.

According to the Pacte National de lutte contre le gaspillage alimentaire in France, "any food intended for human consumption which, at any stage in the food chain, is lost, discarded, degraded, constitutes food waste.” Therefore, any food that is lost and then recycled as animal feed is also considered food loss and waste.

We should also take into consideration the fact that the value of a product (and its carbon emissions) increases as it moves through the chain, due to the cost of transport, processing, selling or advertising, thus increasing the value of the corresponding losses. This translates to an even higher value for the losses and wastage attributed to the consumption stage.

Despite these numbers, there is growing awareness about the problem of food waste where France leads globally at the legislative level. Since the adoption of Garot’s law in 2016, the Egalim 1 law in 2018 and the Anti-waste law of 2020, it has been illegal for retailers and wholesale traders to destroy or throw away food and instead mandates to have them redistributed in partnership with NGOs to help fight food insecurity. We’re seeing more and more countries have similar legislation, but to this day, there are still no reliable indicators to monitor the evolution of waste.

The impact of food waste on the environment

Perhaps the most talked about way in which food waste impacts the environment is how it exacerbates climate change. Food waste ending up in landfills causes the release of large amounts of methane from anaerobic decomposition. In addition, waste treatment through incineration contributes to GHG emissions as well. However, we have to remember that all before food waste ends up in a landfill, they have been cultivated in farms, processed in factories, often transported across borders, and merchandised for sale or prepared for consumption. When we throw away food, we also throw away all of the precious resources that went into producing this food. This includes the use of land and natural resources, the amount of water consumed for the cultivation and processing of food, its impact on biodiversity and even on animal welfare.

An infographic that displays the global percentage of the world's calories that go to waste, the amount of freshwater attributed to agriculture that is wasted, the amount of fertilizer used in agriculture that is wasted, the percentage of global GHG emissions.
Source: World Resources Institute

Impact on water resources

Food production accounts for a staggering 70% of global water usage. This means that when food is wasted, the water used to grow, irrigate, and process that food also goes to waste. This indirectly affects regions where water scarcity is a concern.

Impact on biodiversity

Agricultural practices associated with food production often involve deforestation, habitat destruction, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Wasted food represents a loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitats due to the pressures placed on ecosystems to meet food demands.

Impact on animal welfare

The FAO reports that more than 20% of the 263 million tonnes of meat produced globally is lost or wasted. While the importance of reducing meat loss and waste is acknowledged due to its substantial environmental impacts, the aspect of animal welfare largely remains unaddressed. The suffering and death that is inflicted on animals to produce food that is never eaten remains invisible. A study connecting the analysis of food loss and waste with animal welfare factors discovered that around 18 billion animal lives were affected by losses and waste within the worldwide meat production and consumption in 2019.

How can you mitigate food waste within your organization?

We would like to preface this by saying that to date, there is no standard methodology agreed upon to quantify food loss and waste. There is also the fact that the definition of food loss and waste can vary depending on the country, business and consumer.

However, mitigating food waste is integral in reaching your sustainability goals. With governments stepping in, public consciousness growing over the planet’s ecological challenges and food waste representing about 8% of global GHG emissions, failing to tackle it makes it simply impossible to fall in line with the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement.

To mitigate food waste, improvements need to be brought in at every stage of the food value chain – from producers and brands to retailers and individual customers.

At Production stage

It’s not the easiest argument to put forward but a direct way to reduce waste at production stage would be to simply produce less. A significant amount of waste can be reduced by optimizing your processes and management systems. Another would be to adjust standards for what goes out of the farm gate. According to 2016 data from ADEME, it is estimated that 11% of vegetables and 23% of seafood harvested in France are deemed non-conforming or “undesirable” due to highly selective standards, thus being wasted.

At Distribution stage

About 14% of food waste in Europe is attributed to this stage that’s primarily driven by expired, damaged or unsold products. Apart from staying on top of your stock-keeping, you can also improve your labeling practices by collaborating with your suppliers to optimize use-by labels on products. For unsold food at stores, you can work with local organizations for donations to combat food insecurity. Recycling food is also a viable option as proven by bakeries in France who repurpose day-old bread into flour used to make new bread or other food such as cookies, muffins and pastries.

At Consumption stage

A practical way to avoid wasting food at home would be through freezing. It helps preserve food items for longer periods, slowing down the growth of bacteria and preventing spoilage. By freezing leftovers, excess produce, or meals, you extend their shelf life, giving you more time to consume them before they go bad. Opting for frozen ingredients, especially when it comes to highly perishable goods such as vegetables is not only a good practice for reducing waste but has also have been found to retain similar, if not higher nutritional content compared to fresh vegetables.


Implementing tracking systems in your supply chain is crucial for understanding the journey of food products from farm to table. This transparency gained from tracking allows for quick identification of potential issues or inefficiencies that might lead to waste. Moreover, it fosters better collaboration with your suppliers, holding them accountable for product quality and encouraging high standards to minimize waste. Integrating Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) with effective Supply Chain Management (SCM) practices further enhances this approach. By analyzing hotspots where waste occurs through LCA, companies can identify targeted opportunities for waste reduction, optimize processes, and create more sustainable supply chains, thus improving overall efficiency and environmental impact.

If current food waste trends persist, we’re looking at doubling its economic and environmental impacts by 2050. However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Nowadays, more and more awareness is being spread about food waste and thus more solutions are being introduced. In France alone, startups such as Phenix, Too Good To Go and Comerso all share the same earnest mission of decreasing the amount of food waste. Apart from promulgated anti-waste laws, local governments in the country have now also launched several initiatives that engage locals to take an active part such as through upcycling biowaste.

Enhance your approach to tackling food waste with Carbon Maps' specialized product-level LCA. Our platform enables you to calculate and assess the environmental impact of your products, eco-design recipes, and packaging, allowing you to identify waste and impact reduction opportunities along your food supply chain. Get in touch with us to explore how our tailored solutions can enhance your product's sustainability and drive positive change within your supply chain.

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