On the Measurement of Food Waste

My colleagues Metin Çakır, Hikaru Hanawa Peterson and I, along with our doctoral students Lindsey Novak (who will be joining the faculty of Colby College this summer) and Jeta Rudi (who has joined the faculty at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo since we started working on this) have a new working paper on food waste.

In that paper, we propose a new definition of food waste–one that avoids value judgments and that has the merit of not counting the productive uses of food (e.g., composting, feeding animals, etc.) as “waste.” On that basis, we argue that most food waste definitions vastly overestimate the extent of the problem.

Moreover, because most food waste is valued at retail prices when, in fact, food often gets wasted well before the retail stage, we also argue that most definitions of food waste overestimate the price per unit of the food that is wasted. Since the value of food waste multiplies those two overstated quantities, it is obvious that reported values are even more overstated.

Here is the abstract of our new paper:

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, a quarter to a third of all the food produced worldwide is wasted. We develop a simple framework to systematically think about food waste based on the life cycle of a typical food item. On the basis of our framework, we identify problems with extant measures of food waste and propose a more consistent and practical approach. In doing so, we first show that the widely cited, extant measures of the quantity and value of food waste are inconsistent with one another and overstate the problem of food waste. By misdirecting and misallocating some of the resources that are currently put into food-waste reduction efforts, this overstatement of the problem could have severe consequences for public policy. Our framework also allows documenting the points of intervention for policies aimed at reducing the extent of food waste in the life cycle of food and to identify interdependencies between potential policy levers.

We are fully aware that many will disagree with our definition of food waste. As we note in the paper, the wasting of food often elicits a visceral reaction from people given strongly entrenched social norms against the wasting of food worldwide, which are almost surely a holdover from earlier times when food was not as abundant as it is now. Still, we felt that as economists, we could contribute meaningfully to the policy debates surrounding food waste.

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