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Food Loss vs. Food Waste: What's the Difference?

October 22, 2020

By now you may have heard the terms food loss or food waste, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic underlining the fragility of food systems, and worsening food loss and waste in many countries. But what do food loss and food waste mean? Are they the same thing, and which one is a bigger issue? We’re  answering those questions here.

What's the Difference?

To begin, it is important to define each term and distinguish them from each other.

According to UN Environment, Food Loss refers to food that gets spilled, spoiled or otherwise lost, or incurs reduction of quality and value during its process in the food supply chain before it reaches its final product stage. Food loss typically takes place at production, post-harvest, processing, and distribution stages in the food supply chain

Food waste, on the other hand, is defined as food that completes the food supply chain up to a final product, of good quality and fit for consumption, but still doesn't get consumed because it is discarded, whether or not after it is left to spoil or expire. Food waste typically (but not exclusively) takes place at retail and consumption stages in the food supply chain.

It can be a little confusing as they are very similar. The biggest difference lies in which stage of the supply chain  the food is discarded.

Pineapples for sale at a local market in Uganda

Supply Chain Issues

When it comes to Food Loss this happens before the food reaches a consumer; some examples are produce that is discarded for not passing the appearance or quality check or even issues or spoilage due to storage, packaging or transportation. 

Food Waste, on the other hand, occurs after the food reaches stores and homes. Here the food is either prematurely discarded or left to spoil; some examples include, letting vegetables spoil, tossing over-ripe bananas (which can be used for baking) and overbuying produce and not using it during the “best before” timeline.

Both are big problems facing the world today. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, when food is lost or wasted all the resources that were used to produce it (such as: water, land, energy, labor and capital) are also wasted. This loss is compounded when talking about emerging communities where these resources are hard to come by in the first place. In addition, the disposal of food loss and waste in landfills, leads to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change.

Waste By the Numbers

Statistics from the United Nations Environment state that, in the United States alone, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. Per capita waste by consumers is between 209-253 pounds (95-115 kilograms) a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeastern Asia, each throw away only 13-24 pounds (6-11 kilograms) a year. It’s hard to believe that 14 percent of food produced globally is lost or wasted and still 690 million people continue to go hungry. 

Pineapples for sale at a local market in Uganda

Sustainable Development Goals

Diverting food waste is at the heart of the Jali Way and we’re working toward that goal by working with rural women farmers around the world. The issue of reducing food waste is also an integral part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically achieving Zero Hunger (Goal Number 2) and Responsible Consumption and Production (Goal Number 12). According to the UN, "Sustainable consumption and production is about doing more and better with less. It is also about decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, increasing resource efficiency and promoting sustainable lifestyles."

What Can You Do?

Food Loss and Food Waste may seem like insurmountable problems as an individual, but there are steps you can take to stop contributing to these issues:

  • Learning how to store food properly.
  • Learning how to interpret product date labels.
  • Planning grocery shopping and meals in advance.

By incorporating these habits into your lifestyle, you can make your own impact and work toward a world that turns waste into opportunity. We'll be covering these topics in upcoming blog posts so stay tuned!


“Definition of Food Loss and Waste.” ThinkEatSave. N.p., 2020. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.

“Food Loss and Waste ‘an Ethical Outrage’, UN Chief Says on International Day.” UN News. N.p., 29 Sept. 2020. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.

“Why Should We Care about Food Waste?” N.p., 2010. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.

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