Loss and waste in the food chain

Kris Roels, Dirk Van Gijseghem

November 2011

Food loss can be defined as any reduction in food available for human consumption taking place in the food chain from the moment of harvest until the moment of consumption. This report distinguishes between inevitable (non-edible) and avoidable (edible) food loss, is written from a chain perspective and does not include the inefficient use of food.

Although several obstacles prevent proper quantification, actors at different policy levels are making an effort nonetheless. The loss of edible food across the globe is estimated at 1.3 billion tonnes of foodstuff per year, one third of the entire food production. Food loss is a problem in every corner of the world, regardless of the income level of the region. There is, however, a link between income level and the place of the loss in the chain: richer countries encounter a higher loss at the end of the chain, whereas in the poorer regions, the loss mainly takes place at the start of the chain.

For the European Union, the total food loss, both avoidable and inevitable, is estimated at 89 million tonnes per annum. Across all sectors, it involves 179 kg per capita. With 43% and 39% respectively, households and the food industry take the biggest share in food loss. The total food loss in Belgian is estimated at 3.6 million tonnes per year. In Belgium the food industry (with high production per capita) and households are allegedly responsible for the biggest losses. In absolute terms, Belgium holds the 8th position in the European ranking. The Belgian food industry also takes the 8th place when it comes to relative food loss in the European food industry. In the Walloon region, households waste between 14 and 23 kg of food per inhabitant per year - an annual loss of € 174 per household. Brussels' citizens waste 15 kg per year on average, which adds up to 15,000 tonnes for all the Bruxellois. The total food loss in the remaining Brussels chain is an estimated 54,350 tonnes. Research in Flanders is currently limited to the food loss found in the mixed household waste bags of Flemish households. A recent study has shown that 12% of the mixed household waste bag is made up of wasted food, 5% or which constitutes avoidable food loss. Of all the binned, unopened packages, 21% is not yet past its expiration date.

Food loss has different causes throughout the food chain. Reasons for food loss during production are: bycatch and discards in fishery; process losses associated with agriculture and livestock farming (e.g. loss of harvest or livestock, respectively); quality requirements originating from other chain actors; and market instability. Food processing also causes food loss (e.g. production loss) and packaging also plays an important role here. In the distribution industry, losses have to do with stock management and demand forecasting, marketing strategies, aesthetic considerations and shelf life. Food services are faced with portion challenges, demand and stock issues, kitchen management and other contextual factors. Food loss in households can be caused by the prices of food, awareness, knowledge and skills, portion size, shelf life, personal preferences and socio-economic factors. Policies and regulations may also have an impact on food loss. Food loss and waste in the chain are detrimental from a food perspective, both in view of the actual food problem (925 million people are starving worldwide) and in view of the challenges facing our food and agricultural system in the near future (a global population of 9 billion people in 2050). At the same time, food loss is a hidden environmental problem. Food production has a severe impact on the environment. The loss of food is equivalent to loss of scarce resources used to produce the food and has to be avoided where possible. Losses could be minimised and foodstuffs reintroduced into the food system or reprocessed. Inevitable losses necessitate maximum valorisation according to a cascade of maximum value retention whereby retention as a foodstuff for human beings should be on top of the list.

The report contains an inventory of losses and loss percentages for the Flemish primary sector. In livestock farming the loss of cattle is the biggest contributor to food loss (66,000 tonnes). Loss of milk in dairy farming is relatively small compared to the total production (less than 1%) and adds up to only 19 million litres of milk (mainly from mastitis or udder infection). The loss of eggs is very limited. The fishing industry is facing huge losses: bycatch and discards add up to an average 25% of the total catch. There is also a small loss as a result of intervention (1-3%). Limited losses are recorded for grain and sugar beets in agriculture (less than 4%), but the score for the potato branch is worse (loss mainly from harvesting and sorting). Losses in horticulture vary significantly according to the branch and the extent to which losses actually manifest themselves, fluctuating between a minimum of almost 0% (certain field vegetables) and a maximum of 30% (cherries) of total production. At 3,627 tonnes lost for human consumption (less than 1% of total supplies), losses at auctions are relatively limited. For 2010 the study shows a total estimated loss for the Flemish primary sector of 534,000 to 817,000 tonnes of food (raw materials). Certain agricultural sectors still allow for opportunities to reduce the losses.

The report recommends better quantification of the food losses, as well as a study into their underlying causes. The theme of food loss must play an important part in the food debate, with 2050 as the main horizon. The inventory of losses in the primary sector could form the basis of further research to effectuate maximum reduction of those losses or provide for better valorisation.

Original version:

Kris Roels and Dirk Van Gijseghem (2011)
Verlies en verspilling in de voedselketen

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Division for Agricultural Policy Analysis, Brussels.


Departement Landbouw en Visserij
Ellipsgebouw (6de verdieping) - Koning Albert II-Laan 35, bus 40 - 1030 Brussel
Tel. 02 552 78 20 - Fax 02 552 78 21
E-mail: kennis@lv.vlaanderen.be