By: Jessica Peck, IMAGO Summer Fellow 2021

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 30%, or 1.3 billion tons, of the food produced each year around the world is either lost or wasted before it is consumed.[1] This occurs at all levels of the supply chain, from farmer’s fields through retail outlets, as well as in consumers’ homes. Low-income countries tend to see high levels of food loss in farmers’ fields and through the processing of food products, often due to inadequate infrastructure or food preservation procedures. In high-income countries, production and processing tend to be more efficient and to produce lower levels of loss, but retail outlets and consumers waste large amounts of food. For example, the FDA estimates that around 31% of food in the United States is wasted at the retail and consumer level, a $161B loss.[2]

Of late, these high levels of food loss and waste (FLW) have become a larger focus of the international community, and the topic was explicitly included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. SDG number 12 sets goals for sustainable consumption and production, and subsection 12.3 sets as a target: “By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.”[3]

The focus is well-merited, given the number of development challenges to which FLW contributes. First and foremost, food that is lost or wasted is never consumed. Approximately 25.9% of the world are moderately food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to nutritious and sufficient food, and 9.7% of the world are severely food insecure, meaning they experience persistent caloric deficits and hunger.[4] Living in a world with such high levels of hunger, losing or wasting 1/3 of the global food supply is unconscionable. Second, food that is lost or wasted also represents a large loss of income for farmers and other value chain actors, hitting the smallest producers in low-income countries the hardest. It is estimated that ~$1T is lost annually due to food waste and loss.[5] Third, high levels of food waste and food loss generate a number of serious environmental problems. Estimates are that FLW produces a massive 8% of the world’s GHG emissions; if GHG emissions generated from the production of food that is either lost or wasted were a country, it would be the third-highest GHG emitting country in the world, behind China and the United States.[6] FLW also consumes 24% of water used for global agriculture[7], and each year, 198M ha of land are used to grow food that is eventually lost or wasted. This is an area around the size of Mexico.[8]

While the amount of FLW in the world, and the problems it contributes to, can seem daunting, it also offers some exciting opportunities. With relatively minor changes, we can drastically increase the amount of food available to food insecure populations and/or diminish rates of current environmental damage. Much of this work can and should be done at the policy level. However, there are also many opportunities for social enterprises to step in, and many already are. To address food spoilage in outdoor markets in Nigeria, a startup called ColdHubs is piloting solar-powered cooling facilities near local markets, where market vendors and traders can store produce overnight for a small fee. This drastically cuts down on spoilage, meaning that produce stays fresh enough to be sold even a day or two after arriving at the market.[9] In the US, an app called Too Good to Go allows restaurants to post food that they have leftover at closing time, where app users can reserve it and pick it up for very low prices (i.e. $4/$5 for a full dinner from a nice restaurant.) [10] These are just two examples of the ways that innovative social entrepreneurs can intervene in a system that is not working, to both reduce FLW and generate profit for themselves. As we look to the future, this type of intervention, blending the efficiency of the private sector with the social aims of the public sector, offers some exciting paths forward for addressing FLW and creating a more equitable world.

[1] Sheahan, Megan, and Christopher B. Barrett. “Review: Food Loss and Waste in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Food Policy, vol. 70, 2017, pp. 1–12., doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2017.03.012.

[2] Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Food Loss and Waste.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA,,worth%20of%20food%20in%202010.

[3] “Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production – SDG Tracker.” Our World in Data,

[4] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2020, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO.

[5] FAO, 2014, Food Wastage Footprint Full Cost Accounting.

[6] Scialabba, Nadia. FAO, 2015, Food Wastage Footprint & Climate Change.

[7] Lipinski, Brian, et. al. WRI and UNEP, 2013, Reducing Food Loss and Waste.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Van Dijk, Niek, et al. Dutch Horticulture Trade Board, 2016, SMART Tomato Supply Chain Analysis for Rwanda.

[10] Too Good to Go. 

Jessica Peck

Columbia University | SIPA

Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice

IMAGO Summer Fellow 2021