The Truth About Food Waste

Back in 2013, a seminal paper on household food waste was published by Quested et al, outlining some systemic challenges. Ten years later, I’m looking back at the paper, highlighting the conflict between householder food waste and our retail economy. Be prepared for some punchy stats and some shocking revelations.

First up, some thoughts as to why governments and retailers might be inhibiting efforts to tackle food waste.  Then, some proposed solutions.

Up to Half of all Food is Wasted Between Farm and Fork

According to WRAP, the UK’s foremost body for the prevention of food waste, the value of UK post-farm gate food waste amounts to a whopping £19bn (0.86% of GDP). Though, this excludes the rising impact of climate on crop yields, and excludes any aspect of household over-consumption.  In fact, the calories available to the average UK person total 1086 excess calories per day, equating to +37% of our daily nutritional requirements. This excludes waste at source, during, transit, production, and retail.  Furthermore, the 3428 daily calorie average continues to grow (FAO, 2017), and is unlikely to represent the full picture; for example, the data is thought to exclude takeaway food (absolute clarity on this has proven hard to come by).

In total, wasted food accounts for anywhere from 33% of ‘total food’ (Gustavsson et al., 2011) to 50% of all harvested crops (Alexander et al.,2017). Each year, UK food waste corresponds with at least 36million tonnes of Co2 equivalent; c.7% of total UK Co2e emissions (excluding over-consumption), roughly equal to all aviation among British Citizens. As the UK over-indexes on flight consumption, the global contrast is far greater, hence food waste accounts for c.2.5 – 3.7 times all aviation emissions (Overton, 2019) and c.10% of all co2e (depending on how food waste is defined).

Householders are thought to account for between c.40% – 70% of all food wasted, and so have become a natural area of focus for campaigners, including WRAP. However, for reasons that follow, householders have also offered a source of diminished responsibility for organisations and governments.

Household Food Waste Correlates with Retail Sales, Global Influence, and Jobs

UK consumer spending on food totals a whopping £254bn p.a., with Agri-food accounting for 13.4% of all UK employment and c.9% GDP (DEFRA, 2021).

Looking at excess calorie availability alone, a reduction of 37% would amount to up to 3.3% GDP (albeit not accounting for exports and using a proportional cost of production). My research continues in examining the true sources of disparity between WRAP’s 0.86% and the 3.5% figure represented by the FAO calorie gap.

As highlighted by Messner et. al. (2020), the drivers of economic growth, Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and food insecurity are in many cases identical. A dramatic drop in household food waste would likely lead to substantive job losses (Campoy-Muñoz et. al., 2017), and so few governments are motivated by the rapid decline of waste. Indeed, to tackle household food waste seriously would be to weaken the UK’s competitiveness on a global scale (Britz et al., 2019).

The delicate balance of global food resilience and local economies has led to a deep lack of transparency, at a time when public debate surrounding the net impact of waste impact is badly needed.

At the same time, there is limited power to act on household food waste at the scale required among non-governmental and charitable organisations . This is largely due to the costs and complexity involved in addressing the sociological and psychological challenges inherent in food planning, purchase, preparation, and lifestyles, something WRAP itself is not resourced to address (Quested et al., 2013).

The True Costs of Food are Not Accounted for

Food waste is complex, though offers a litmus for our most fundamental capitalist vs. planetary divides; the needs to decouple environmental degradation and economic growth, and to adopt societal responsibility at the heart of profit-making enterprise.

Adam Smith, forefather of modern economics, created the platform for neoliberal economics during the late 18th Century, with the notion, ‘economic self-interest is to the benefit of society’. However, as population boomed in wealthy Western nations, resources became ever-more scarce and pollution ballooned.

Smith’s thesis proved correct, in that self interest has inspired thriving economies; however, the corresponding power structures and devolved accountabilities have offered poor shelter for the natural world we so deeply depend on.

To underline the extent of our food supply challenge, the negative / ‘external’ costs of UK food production (e.g., emissions, diabetes, cancer), average c.£0.97 per retail £1 (Fitzpatrick, Young and Barbour, 2019); costs which are currently accounted for by our strained NHS and natural environment. Such costs are further exaccerbated by the excess waste, and limited recycling of food packaging (c.5% of all food packaging is recycled globally).

Few companies measure the societal costs of their products, and there is no legal obligation to do so. Simply, it has scarcely been in the interests of markets or government to disrupt profit-making liberties. To the contrary, lobbying attempts by the alcohol, high sugar, and red meat industries, have been largely successful. See Caffrey (2019) by way of example.

Food Waste Reduction is Essential to Global Food Supply

In 2019, a seminal report by EAT Lancet reviewed the possibility of providing a healthy diet as global population reaches a forecast 10bn in 2050. The report concluded, whilst it is indeed possible, significant transformation of the global food system and our own diets is required. For context, 65% of global habitable land was used for Agriculture in 2019. Population growth was forecast at +27% between 2019 and 2050, but perhaps the critical influence, is ‘the Nutrition Transition’, whereby burgeoning middle classes in Brazil, India, and China, amongst other nations, switch their dietary intake from local produce, to imported goods and ultra processed foods with higher energy consumption.

Time for a socio-economic re-boot

Our main benchmark of economic success (Gross Domestic Product) requires urgent adaptation to create conditions by which we can similtaneously nurture food security (Raworth, 2017), waste reduction, social equity, and economic resilience.

In practice, reduction of food waste is simple (reduce the volume of excess food sold for consumption), though, the action required has been deemed too drastic; counter to the notion of a free-market; and as sacrificing short term economic certainty for less tangible outcomes (Frederick and Loewenstein, 2002); perceived as a sure-fire way to shorten one’s career in government.

As most retailers and producers exist predominantly to generate shareholder value, few have acted in absence of strict governance or profit-based incentive.  Thankfully, this is beginning to change, as more organisations understand the need to place purpose alongside profit, and as greater transparency and accountability is demanded by incoming legislation, and by consumers.

Whilst the efforts of WRAP and others may be marginalising waste to a degree (see WRAP, 2020), neither the government, retailers, producers, or independent bodies seem empowered to act outside the shackles of growth.  A Mexican standoff ensues, where per capita obesity continues to rise (Baker, 2019) and lipservice is given, undermining the true scale of waste in our society. 

Everyone has a boss, after all.  And, if that boss is GDP, it might just be our longest ruling dictator.  

However, all is not lost, as I’ll cover below:

How can we reduce Food Waste?

In a world where the knowing prey on the hopeful, we must seek collaboration and detract from isolated economic agendas, in favour of a combined view of profit making enterprise and public health.

Whilst the ideas below are by no means comprehensive, they may at least provide some food for thought.  In writing them, I ask; ‘how might we seek to solicit a truly substantive reduction in food waste, over the long, mid and short term?’.  Further ideas and responses are both encouraged and welcomed in the comments box below.


  • Create the basis for a society that ceases to prioritise growth as its principle metric for wellbeing (Raworth, 2017)
  • Or, at the very least, introduce policy, no matter how hard, that reduces over-consumption, whilst retaining a ‘healthy’ economy (e.g. by reducing subsidies and placing a fair value on food).
  • Invest in the next generation of politicians, business leaders and economists, equipping them with fresher, more relevant thinking.
  • Influence school curriculums to ensure incoming generations understand not just the profit-making side of food production, but also its impact on personal and societal wellbeing.
  • Build combined datasets that correlate the impact of specific products on public and environmental health, and the associated costs attached (e.g. NHS burden). Use this data to determine policy and taxation, in the knowledge healthier markets will form (lower alcohol thresholds a recent example).


  • Share tangible, measured, widely-cherished benefits of food waste reduction, to which a value is attached and may be readily compared.
    • Leverage this tangible value to promote new initiatives, for example, the mandatory sharing of calories purchased on till receipts.
    • Re-balance the economy, investing in green skills and incentivising innovation that re-aligns shareholder benefit with societal good (HM Treasury, 2020).
    • Form a consolidated approach to funding public awareness, through mainstream media and influencers. This could, for example, offer a fresh and more credible / transparent source of ‘off-setting’.


  • Solicit true transparency and alignment of objectives amongst all parties, forming a global consensus as to how food waste is defined (Roodhuyzen et al., 2017) and as to its relationship with over-consumption and profit.
  • Fund and communicate the critical role of food waste in delivering UN SDGs beyond current echo chambers, in a manner that is simple, compelling and benefits-led (WRAP’s Love Food, Hate Waste sadly does not achieve this – see (Yamakawa et al., 2017).
  • Clarify and quantify measures reducing waste whilst avoiding GDP decline (Campoy-Muñoz et al., 2017).
  • Simplify the complex, attributing a value and ranking to waste-reducing initiatives, whilst accurately tracking their impact against 2030 targets.
  • Identify concrete areas for the reallocation of jobs lost through a possible reduction in consumption, adopting a societal lens that coincides with healthier diets, longer lives, and greater social equity.


Baker, C. (2019) Obesity Statistics. House of Commons Briefing Paper 3336. Commons Library. Available at: |

Caffrey, M. (2019) ‘I’m a scientist. Under Trump I lost my job for refusing to hide climate crisis facts | Maria Caffrey’, The Guardian, 25 July. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2020).

Campoy-Muñoz, P., Cardenete, M. A. and Delgado, M. C. (2017) ‘Economic impact assessment of food waste reduction on European countries through social accounting matrices’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 122, pp. 202–209. doi: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.02.010.

Chrispin, S. (2015) ‘Why should we trust the IFS?’, BBC News, 23 April. Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2020).

DEFRA (2018) Food Statistics in your pocket: Food ChainGOV.UK. Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2020).

FAO (2017) FAOSTAT. Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2020).

Frederick, S. and Loewenstein, G. (2002) ‘Time Discounting and Time Preference: A Critical Review’, Journal of Economic Literature, XL, pp. 351–401.

IFS (2019) Labour manifesto: an initial reaction from IFS researchersInstitute for Fiscal Studies. Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2020).

Messner, R., Richards, C. and Johnson, H. (2020) ‘The “Prevention Paradox”: food waste prevention and the quandary of systemic surplus production’,  Agriculture and Human Values, 37(3), pp. 805–817. doi: 10.1007/s10460-019-10014-7.

Quested, T. E. et al. (2013) ‘Spaghetti soup: The complex world of food waste behaviours’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 79, pp. 43–51. doi: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2013.04.011.

Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. London: Random House Business Books.

Roodhuyzen, D. M. A. et al. (2017) ‘Putting together the puzzle of consumer food waste: Towards an integral perspective’, Trends in Food Science & Technology, 68, pp. 37–50. doi: 10.1016/j.tifs.2017.07.009.

Wrap (2020) ‘Food surplus and waste in the UK – key facts’. Wrap. Available at:


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