Food Waste Is Way Worse Than We Thought

updated Feb 14, 2020
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For nearly a decade, it was thought that about one third of the food produced for human consumption ended up being thrown away. This number came from a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimate made in 2011, but a new study suggests that their number is a gross underestimate. Bloomberg reports that there was a fundamental assumption that miscalculated the amount of home food waste — thrown away by the consumer, rather than earlier in the supply line — because of one major thing : how much more food the wealthy waste compared to anyone else.

New analysis from the Wageningen University Department of Economic Research says that most empirical models showing food waste overestimate how much food people eat because they don’t actually account for waste, and particularly for the relationship between food waste and wealth. Their data has managed to pinpoint that food waste starts when consumers start spending about $6.70 per day. 

Prior to this story, the Food and Agriculture methodology had not taken into account how much the individual circumstances of the consumer changed the amount of food waste. In the new study, they look from the demand side, examining consumers socio-economic attributes (income, education, residence, food culture) and see how these impact the level of wasted food in the home. 

Their study doesn’t actually bring in any new survey data, but instead uses older studies and adjusts them based on the new information they’ve found around what affects various food-waste statistics. Using the previously released data, the Wageningen study concluded that the actual number of wasted calories per consumer per day was likely closer to double the original estimates of food waste when they adjusted it based on data around body weight, affluence, and food production. They call it the “affluence elasticity” of waste, and mention that it demonstrates a brewing problem for any growing country.