Food Waste Facts You Should Know

By Heifer International

Last Updated: September 6, 2023

A farmer sorts through his cherry tomatoes.
One-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

With worldwide hunger steadily on the rise, one flaw in the global food system is particularly hard to stomach: food loss and waste.

One-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 1.3 billion tons of edible food are lost or wasted every single year, totaling a third of all human food production and $940 billion in economic losses.

Facts About Food Waste and Loss

Food loss and food waste are global challenges with enormous environmental, economic and social consequences.

In an era when sustainability and responsible management of natural resources have gained increased prominence, reducing food waste has emerged as a critical concern. Read on to learn more about this issue and how Heifer International is working to overcome it.

A farmer from Uganda holds soybeans in her hands.
Reducing food waste and loss is now more important than ever. Photo by Joseph Muhumuza/Heifer International.

What is the difference between food loss and food waste?

Food loss is the decrease in quantity of food that occurs along the food supply chain before it reaches the consumer. The causes of food loss include inefficiencies in production, post-harvest handling practices, transportation, storage, processing and packaging. A staggering 14% of food produced around the world is lost before it ever reaches retail stores.

Food waste occurs at both the retail and consumer levels when edible food is discarded or uneaten in households and industries like hotels, grocery stores, restaurants and catering. Worldwide, 17% of food is wasted this way. In the United States, food makes up nearly a quarter of all solid waste in landfills. 

Wasted Food Has Environmental Repercussions

Maty Tine, a radio reporter and farmer, works in her onion field.
Food loss and waste can have profound effects on agricultural land, natural resources and the climate. Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui/Heifer International.

Wasted food causes irreversible environmental damage: It wastes water and energy and produces greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change.

Nearly 30% of the world’s agricultural land is used to produce food that is never eaten due to food loss and waste, along with enough water to fill Lake Geneva three times. Global food loss and waste ranks higher than any country in the world for consumption of precious surface and ground fresh water.

Food loss and waste are heavy burdens on the environment.

Greenhouse gases are emitted throughout a food’s lifecycle — from production to disposal — and global food waste has a big carbon footprint. If food loss and waste were a country, its greenhouse gas emissions would rank third in the world.

The Economic Toll of Food Loss and Waste

Beyond the ethical and environmental concerns, the economic ramifications of wasted food are substantial, affecting every country.

When food is lost or wasted, the resources invested in its production, including water, land, energy and labor, also go to waste.

Food loss along the production and supply chains not only leads to lost income for farmers but also disrupts the delicate balance of global natural resources. Reduced agricultural productivity and inefficient use of natural resources can lead to higher production costs, decreased profitability and higher prices at the retail and consumer levels, which increases food insecurity globally.

Each year, the cost of food loss and waste to the global economy is approximately $2.6 trillion.

Global Food Waste Could Feed Every Starving Person

The world produces enough food to feed everyone, yet millions still lack the food they need. The number of people facing hunger has been increasing year over year since 2014, with people in low- and middle-income countries paying the highest price. It is estimated that over half of the people without adequate food live in Asia and more than one-third live in Africa.

Children enjoy a hearty meal at a community kitchen in Rwanda.
Children enjoy a hearty meal at a community kitchen in Rwanda, supplied with milk and vegetables from the village's producers. Helping farmers build productive, sustainable local food systems is vital to reducing waste and addressing hunger. Photo by Jacques Nkinzingabo/Heifer International.

While over a billion tons of food go uneaten every year, as many as 828 million people go hungry.

Food waste contributes to global hunger. Currently, about one-third of all food produced is wasted. This translates to 1.3 billion tons of food that could have potentially nourished those in need. According to the United Nations, cutting food waste could provide enough food to feed all malnourished people globally.

The Global Impact of Food Loss and Food Waste

The consequences of lost and wasted food extend beyond the mere squandering of resources. They have far-reaching effects on the environment, economy and society as a whole. Understanding the scope of this issue and implementing effective strategies to prevent food waste are crucial.

  • Environmental Impact: The resources used to produce, process and distribute food, such as water, land, energy and labor, are essentially wasted when food is lost or wasted. Additionally, decomposing food in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
  • Economic Consequences: Food loss and waste amount to significant economic losses at every level of the supply chain. Farmers lose income, and businesses bear the brunt of wasted investments in production and distribution. Consumers also end up paying higher prices for food.
  • Social Ramifications: While millions of people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, it is unthinkable that so much food is lost or wasted. Efficiently managing food resources could alleviate hunger and improve food security, ensuring that food reaches those who need it most.

What is Heifer Doing to Reduce Food Waste?

Farmers in Nepal use a truck to take their produce to market.
With support from Heifer, a farmers' cooperative in Nepal purchased a truck to take their produce to market. Dependable, affordable transportation helps food reach customers before it spoils. Photo by Narendra Shrestha/Heifer International.

Heifer partners with smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States to increase productivity, improve agricultural practices and build functional, efficient agribusinesses.

We also invest in infrastructure, connect farmers to markets, and develop value chains in rural communities, helping to establish food systems that provide food and income where they are needed most.

Food loss and waste happen in every region and at every stage of the food chain, from field to landfill.

All countries lose or waste roughly the same amount of food every year but for different reasons depending on context and commodity. Sustainable production and food management practices can ensure perfectly good food reaches the plates of those who need it most.

Farmers work on a vegetable farm during a farmer field school session in Uganda.
In Uganda and around the world, a lack of efficient equipment and other challenges at the farm level cause food loss even before it can be eaten or sold. Photo by Joseph Muhumuza/Heifer International.

For example, 35% of fruits and vegetables in sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to be lost during post-harvest, processing and distribution, compared to only 15% in Europe, where infrastructure is more advanced.

Research from one district in Uganda found that 4,300 tons of beans were lost each year at the farm level alone, representing a financial loss of $2.3 million at the time of the study. 

Rwandan dairy farmers deliver fresh milk to a local milk collection point.
Rwandan dairy farmers deliver fresh milk to a local milk collection point. Having access to a nearby market is important for rural farmers with no way to keep milk cool. Photo by Jacques Nkinzingabo/Heifer International.

Reliable infrastructure, like irrigation, roads, electricity and refrigeration, plays a critical role in determining a region’s rate of food loss or waste.

“Solving the issues with food insecurity has reached a boiling point,” according to Adesuwa Ifedi, Heifer International’s senior vice president of Africa programs. “Africa’s food systems need bold, innovative and scalable interventions to address the root causes and ensure sustainable, systemic change.”

Members of a milk collection center in Rwanda tend to refrigerated tanks.
Members of a milk collection center in Rwanda tend to refrigerated tanks. The group collects and sells raw milk as well as processed products like yogurt. Photo by Jacques Nkinzingabo/Heifer International.

The biggest challenge for existing food systems in Africa is “lack of access to appropriate tech and infrastructure [for farmers and workers] who are required to take food from farm to market,” Adesuwa said. “Technology and mechanization remain key to improving productivity and supply."

“It's [about] the ability to rise beyond the conventional way to solve problems,” she added, “creating new ways to solve those problems.”

Collaborative Solutions for Sustainable Change

  • Empowering Farmers: Heifer International understands that sustainable food systems begin at the source. By providing farmers with knowledge and training, Heifer empowers smallholder farmers to adopt modern, efficient farming practices. This minimizes farm-level and post-harvest losses and ensures that crops reach their intended destination in optimal condition.
  • Promoting Innovation: Our annual agriculture competition in Africa, the AYuTe Africa Challenge, awards cash grants and mentorship to young entrepreneurs who have launched promising new tech solutions — such as solar-powered cold storage and tractor-sharing programs — to transform smallholder agriculture across the continent.
  • Investing in Opportunity: Heifer Impact Capital, Heifer’s private investment entity, invests in building strong, equitable local agricultural value chains to create more resilient families, economies and communities. Investing in infrastructure and equipment for collection, processing and transportation expands farmer participation in the value chains they supply and supports sustainable, inclusive food systems that increase incomes for farmers while delivering food to communities.

Incorporating practices that minimize loss at every level of the food supply chain helps to create a more robust and sustainable future for our planet and its inhabitants. By implementing these strategies, we can collectively address the issue of food waste and work toward an equitable food system in line with climate goals.

Heifer International envisions a world where communities are empowered to produce and distribute food to those in need. Guided by the belief that ending hunger and poverty is possible, Heifer has been working to create lasting solutions.