Food loss - lemons

Creating Clarity on Food Loss and Food Waste

August 05, 2014
Nigel Banks

I sensed a certain frustration in Charles Wilson’s opening comments on a newly released report (“Food Losses and Waste in the Context of Sustainable Food Systems”, produced by a High Level Panel of Experts; copy available here) in his recent guest post on the National Geographic’s food blog “The Plate” (read Charlie’s post here ). How, he seemed to be saying, could we be so focused on picking over the distinctions in meanings between the terms food loss and food waste when our efforts could be much more productively engaged in considering how we could reduce the problems of “food loss and waste” (shortened to FLW by the report’s authors). I have to say that I empathised with Charles – the burning issues of FLW were surely much more deserving of our attention than even soundly argued semantics?

Then I remembered.


Last October, I set off for Thailand to spend a truly memorable week with a group of fifteen postharvest professionals  from five countries that border the Mekong River. And as part of my preparation for what I was going to explore with them on postharvest technology, I was setting the context by considering the highly motivating issue of food loss. And in wading into the literature on this issue, I was rapidly halted in my tracks by THE DILEMMA. In fact for the rest of the day, I was slurping and sloshing around in a quagmire of trying to characterise the real difference between FOOD LOSS and FOOD WASTE so that I’d be able to be clear about it with my co-adventurers.

Cutting to the chase, I read the carefully argued section on definitions in FAO’s “Food Wastage Footprint – Impacts on Natural Resources – Summary Report” (available here) and developed a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.


The reason was simple and it was daunting: I read and reread and read again the definitions. Whilst the multiple readings did seem to help me understand a little bit, the feeling of clarity that I had been hoping for resolutely and robustly eluded me. And it has eluded me until the homework that I set myself after reading Charles’s post this last weekend.

My goal today is to be audacious enough to deliver a point of view on the definitions of these terms that is a tad different. I earnestly and humbly hope that it will:

  • Provide a useful pointer that will help you avoid getting stuck in the food loss / waste / wastage quagmire
  • Help postharvesters in general sidestep the gloop and get on with the problem of addressing FLW (or, rather, the different and very simple thing we are going to call it by the end of this post).

First, let me briefly go back to my September preparations, the definitions I found in the FAO report and the starting summary I made of these for my Mekong co-adventurers. But feel free to skip forwards to THE PUNCHLINE at the bottom of the post – it’s what I hope to able to do every time I work on FLW in the future.

As FAO would have it:

  • Food loss refers to a decrease in mass (dry matter) or nutritional value (quality) of food that was originally intended for human consumption. These losses are mainly caused by inefficiencies in the food supply chains, such as poor infrastructure and logistics, lack of technology, insufficient skills, knowledge and management capacity of supply chain actors, and lack of access to markets. In addition, natural disasters play a role.
  • Food waste refers to food appropriate for human consumption being discarded, whether or not after it is kept beyond its expiry date or left to spoil. Often this is because food has spoiled but it can be for other reasons such as oversupply due to markets, or individual consumer shopping/eating habits. 
  • Food wastage refers to any food lost by deterioration or waste. Thus, the term “wastage” encompasses both food loss and food waste.

So actually, thinking about what kind of FLW issue I am working on isn’t a dilemma, it’s a trilemma (Ha! I had already written: “don’t worry – I really have made that one up” but it turns out to be a real word that fits this situation perfectly – a trilemma is a difficult choice from three options, each of which is [or appears] unacceptable or unfavourable – more here). Beautiful!

I like it when people do serious work to sort out difficult material and help us all get to where we need to get to with less effort. So I was keen to adopt the FAO’s terminology and to explore it with the Mekong Team. But how could I do that if every time I hit the question my whole mind, and eventually my whole being, was paralysed by the trilemma?

I could sidestep it: food loss and food waste were both encompassed in the terminology by food wastage, so why not just refer to wastage and never think / talk about food loss or food waste again? But as postharvest professionals, it is our duty and our moral obligation to help the world deal to its impending food crisis. What would the world’s peoples make of us trying to engage them in fixing the global challenge that we face as a result of food “wastage” – “Of what?!”. Just think of the lengthy non-productive monologues that would need to follow by way of explanation and justification. And seeking deftly to differentiate food wastage from food waste? Surely, people will generally expect us to talk in plain language – language that everyone can understand and that doesn’t immediately plunge us into ambiguities and uncertainty? And just imagine trying to translate these nuances across languages and dialects!

So my first response was to try to shorten and simplify the  wording of the definitions of food loss and waste, keeping to the spirit of the original definitions and to try to make more clear how they differed. Here’s what I came up with – not a huge change – more like a summary:

definitions of food loss, waste and wastage from FAO

Summarised versions of the FAO definitions on food loss, food waste and food wastage

And because October last year was when I was writing for Wojciech Florkowski’s fantastic postharvest resource (the third edition of Postharvest Handling – A Systems Approach, available here), I thought I’d be helpful and include this abbreviated representation there. But as a result of the reflections initiated by Charlie’s blog post, my current assessment is that this has enshrined a remarkably unbrave / non-incisive piece of thinking for ever in the hard cover postharvest literature.

Why do I think this?


  • Food loss and food quality loss (both encompassed by food loss in the FAO definition) are actually different deals: food is finally lost only when its quality loss becomes excessive – when it falls below some threshold level of quality that is required for it to be acceptable. Up until that point, it is not food loss, just food quality loss – it is still food, just perhaps not always very good food. Combining both food quality loss and food loss into the definition of food loss feels like a rapid route to quagmire.
  • Following the FAO approach (and also that of the High Level Panel of Experts recently published), food waste is just a food loss that occurs when the food is with retailers and consumers – but note that it’s still a food loss! This definition of food waste is an unnecessary distinction from food loss – it too is a route to quagmire.

So you will understand my rapidly rising concern when I read the definitions of the components of FLW in the High Level Panel of Experts treatise and saw that they differed from those earlier published by FAO and that good old “postharvest losses” were being described as “food loss and waste” – dozens of times throughout the volume.

The next two paragraphs provide important perspectives from the High Level Panel of Experts treatise:

  • Food losses and waste have been approached by two different angles: either from a waste perspective, with the associated environmental concerns, or from a food perspective, with the associated food security concerns. This duality of approaches has often led to confusions on the definition and scope of food losses and waste, contributing to unreliability and lack of clarity of data.
  • This report adopts a food security and nutrition lens and defines food losses and waste (FLW) as “a decrease, at all stages of the food chain from harvest to consumption, in mass, of food that was originally intended for human consumption, regardless of the cause”. For the purpose of terminology, the report makes the distinction between food losses, occurring before consumption level regardless of the cause, and food waste, occurring at consumption level regardless of the cause. It further proposes to define food quality loss or waste (FQLW) which refers to the decrease of a quality attribute of food (nutrition, aspect, etc.), linked to the degradation of the product, at all stages of the food chain from harvest to consumption.

The need for environmentalist audiences to address issues with waste and how this needs to be aligned in a streamlined manner with the food focus of postharvesters is an important point. But again, creating a distinction between food loss (product that is downgraded from being food before it reaches the consumer) and waste (product that is downgraded from being food at around the time it reaches the consumer) on the basis of where it happens in the supply system seems arbitrary and unnecessary. Suddenly, I knew that I had to put time aside to get to the bottom of this!


Here, after but a single weekend’s pondering, is clarity. It is structurally simple and I believe that the meanings it contains are abundantly clear.

Using the common meanings of loss and waste that you and I might use in our everyday conversations, the distinctions that we need to create a workable system of terms turns out to be totally straightforward:

  • Food loss comprises product that is rejected from a food supply system (from the moment of harvest through until the moment of consumption) because it no longer meets (or is seen to be capable of meeting) customer or user needs. Food loss is of primary interest to postharvesters who often seek to minimise the quantity of loss from their food supply systems in their efforts to deliver more and better foods to the world’s peoples.
  • Food waste comprises food-sourced materials rejected from a food supply system (from the moment of harvest through until the moment of consumption) that become inputs to a waste system. Food waste is of primary interest to waste technologists and businesses who are likely to seek to maximise the  net value or beneficial outcomes of systems into which waste is introduced.
  • Food wastage: we don’t need this confusing term any more!

Notice how this approach sidesteps the pejorative aspect of the term food waste: when we say that we waste something, it carries the sense of being morally wrong. Seen in this light, food waste is a component of an overall food loss that has arisen because the food has not been taken care of adequately or that too much of it is being used without due care for efficiency or prudence. But these are just points of view – they all involve subjectivity. If a food has been mishandled, this may be wasteful but this does not influence whether or not it is a loss: if it is no longer acceptable as food, it is still a food loss! If we wanted to retain the term waste as a way to look at food loss, then food loss would be the umbrella term that contains within it the unnecessary losses that would be considered to be food waste. But who wants to get involved in a moralistic debate as to whether a loss was unnecessary or not – it would always be just a point of view. So, rather than follow down the FAO path of considering food loss and food waste as subsets of food wastage (FAO, 2013), we can do something BOLD and SIMPLE.


As postharvesters, we can confidently sidestep the trilemma quagmire involved in defining key terms in the domain of food loss and food waste. We can:

  • Use the term food loss to describe losses of food from food supply systems
  • Use the term food waste to describe materials rejected from food systems that become inputs to waste systems
  • Recognise the role of the fairy who lives at the junction of food and waste systems: the food-waste fairy thrives on converting any food loss that is an output from a food system into a food waste that is an input to a waste system, tidying up the mess for the food system and creating new goodies to play with for the waste system.


Now it needs you to provide further clarifications and simplifications that will ensure that simplicity can be a key weapon in our arsenal against food loss and food waste. Armed with the final version, you and I both will be able to have a totally straightforward conversation with Pat Public, Philly Philanthropist, Guv Agency, Pon Postharvester and Wally Waster. You and I can support them all in their efforts to tackle the connected problems of food loss (delivering better quality foods to more people) and food waste (reducing environmental impact of the rejects from food systems). They will all TOTALLY GET IT!

We’ll have saved ourselves decades of talking to the wind when we don’t have decades to spare.

Now for your reflections – is the job done or is there more thinking to be done?

Let me know what you think!

Best wishes


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