A New Way to Count the Amount of Food Wasted Around the World

The new accounting standards from the World Resources Institute will turn the issue into one that’s measured and managed.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jun 7, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Food waste is a problem. Every year, nearly a third of what is produced globally goes in the trash. The problem cuts across countries and sectors and touches on a variety of issues. Concerned about food security? A third of the world’s food is being wasted, and nearly 800 million people suffer from hunger. The environment? A third of the world’s food is being wasted, accounting for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Economics? A third of the world’s food is being wasted—$940 billion worth.

The problem is big, but it’s systemic too—and figuring out where, when, and how all that food goes from being destined for dinner to traveling toward a landfill is a complicated task. For the last three years, Brian Lipinski and a team of researchers at the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit focused on sustainable management of natural resources, have been working out a system for answering the questions of where loss happens for the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard, which was released Monday.

“We have these big, relative figures that help us get the scope of the problem,” Lipinski said in an interview with TakePart. But while those kinds of figures—a third of the world’s food is being wasted—are good for developing concerns, they aren’t so good for developing solutions. “If I’m Nestlé, it doesn’t help me to know that a third of all food is wasted worldwide,” Lipinski said. The goal of the standard is to provide tools for countries, cities, and business “to see where food loss is happening within their own supply chains.”

But to get into the nitty-gritty, Lipinski and his colleagues had to consider a lofty question first: What is food waste? It seems simple, but to say that food waste is when food is wasted does not suffice when you’re trying to set a global standard in accounting for and reducing the problem.

“One of the tougher aspects was making sure that we weren’t thinking too much from an overly Western perspective,” Lipinski said. One of the WRI’s partners on the project is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, a leading food-issues group in the developing world, which is very focused on food-security issues. While someone in the West might look at spoiled grocery stock fed into an anaerobic digester to generate energy as food that did not go to waste, that’s not the case in other parts of the world. “If I am talking to someone at FAO, they talk about [food waste as] any use of food that doesn’t end up going to a human,” Lipinski said. If it was intended for humans and it goes to an animal, if it goes to compost, if it goes to anything other than a meal for people, that food is wasted.

The standard doesn’t set a definition for food waste but rather creates a framework that allows for local concerns to define what it means and for the accounting to still be comparable on a global scale. Once the matter of meaning is decided, Lipinski said, “the standard provides the tool to make sure that we’re making the progress toward those goals that we’re hoping to hit,” such as the U.S. and U.N. efforts to cut food waste in half by 2030.

“I think I am probably more aware than anyone how high-level and broad the numbers that we have on food waste are,” said Dana Gunders, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program. Four years ago, she wrote a report that yielded one of the most commonly cited figures for domestic food waste: 40 percent of U.S. food ends up in the landfill. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to understand the problem more and target solutions if we have better data,” she said.

The issue of food waste has gone from a little-discussed concern to something in the zeitgeist since Gunders’ report was released. “I think it’s been an incredibly fruitful time for the issue, and I can point to a lot of indicators for that,” from food-waste-reduction goals to disruptive start-ups focused on addressing food waste and more, “but I can’t tell you that we’re wasting any less food, because we don’t have any way of measuring that,” she said.

The document that details the standard is not exactly consumer friendly (and is not intended to be). Lipinski and his coauthors consider topics such as quantifying the weight of food waste at great length, noting, for example, that “some foods absorb water during cooking or are diluted in the home; where possible, cost factors should be modified to take these changes into account” when calculating weights. While that is true, it loses some of the simple appeal of, say, arguing the moral imperative to compost.

But a compost bin in every yard would only begin to address the problem—and that, in a way, is the point of the new standard.

“Many countries, cities, companies, and other entities currently lack sufficient insight into how much, why, and where food and/or associated inedible parts are removed from the food supply chain,” an executive summary of the standard reads. “This makes it difficult to develop strategies and prioritize actions to prevent FLW [food loss and waste], and to identify the most productive use of the FLW that does arise.”

Or, as Lipinski said, “it’s that old saying that what gets measured gets managed.”