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Reducing food waste: Greater food security, less environmental benefits

A study from the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered a new perspective on the environmental benefits of reducing food waste. Contrary to long standing beliefs, curbing food waste may not deliver the anticipated environmental impact, although it could potentially improve global food security.

The reduction of food waste has been widely recognized as a crucial step in mitigating the environmental impacts of our food system. For instance, food loss and waste in the supply chain contribute to an astounding 24 percent of global food system greenhouse gas emissions and six percent of total emissions worldwide. That’s not even accounting for the average of 527 calories wasted per person per day on a global scale.

However, the study, published in the journal Nature Food, suggests that the environmental benefit of reducing food waste might be less pronounced than previously assumed. Instead, the real impact could be a significant drop in food prices, causing a surge in consumption rates.

Focus of the study

The research was led by a team from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), using a holistic approach to examine the implications of reducing food loss and waste. 

This incorporated guidelines set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2021, focusing on food loss occurring on the supply side (food spoiled or damaged before reaching retailers) and food waste happening on the demand side (food discarded by consumers or retailers).

Margaret Hegwood, the study’s lead author and a CIRES/CU Boulder PhD candidate, emphasized the necessity of understanding the full repercussions of reducing food waste and loss. She argued that increasing the available food supply would lead to lower prices, sparking predictable shifts in consumer behavior.

“Let’s say the price of cereals goes down because of improvements in food system efficiency, now you can afford to eat the same amount more often. Consumers respond to these price decreases, purchasing more than they had before, which offsets some of the benefits of reducing the food loss and waste,” explained Hegwood.

How the research was conducted 

In order to understand this interplay between supply and demand, the authors developed a simple model to observe the consequences of waste and loss reductions.

“Our model basically formalized ECON 101: reducing food loss and waste shifts the supply and demand curves, respectively,” said study co-author Professor Matt Burgess. “How sensitive supply and demand are to prices – which we get from previous research – then determines how much we project food prices and consumption will change.”

The results revealed that a significant offset exists, with a complete reduction in food loss and waste slicing away from half to two-thirds of the expected environmental benefits.

While the research simulated scenarios of reduced food waste and loss, the authors refrained from making specific assumptions about how these reductions would be achieved. Such strategies depend heavily on a plethora of variables including food type, regional factors, consumption habits, access to technology, political context, and dietary needs.

Implications of the study

This research stands out in the academic landscape, marking the first of its kind to scrutinize the impacts of decreased food loss and waste on a global scale. Previous studies have mostly confined their focus to regional or national levels.

Hegwood hopes that their findings will prompt a reevaluation of the discourse surrounding food waste and loss, shifting the emphasis from environmental impact towards food security.

“And I think likely, at least to some extent, that this could mean that our efforts to reduce food loss and waste could actually not be as beneficial for the environment as we think they could be, but it’s super beneficial in terms of food security,” said Hegwood. “And I think that is very important for people to think about.”

What types of food are often wasted?

Food waste is a significant issue globally. It not only represents a waste of resources but also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Here are some types of food that are commonly wasted:

Fruits and vegetables

These are among the most frequently wasted foods. This is often because of their relatively short shelf life, and also because cosmetic standards can lead to the rejection of perfectly good produce.

Bread and bakery items

Bread and other bakery items are often wasted because they have a short shelf-life and may not be consumed before they go stale or moldy.

Dairy products

Milk, yogurt, and other dairy products are often thrown away when they are not consumed by their sell-by or use-by dates. The same goes for cheese, which can go bad if not properly stored or consumed in a timely manner.

Meat and fish

These are commonly wasted both at the retail level and in households. This may be due to over-purchasing, improper storage, or not being consumed by the expiration date.

Prepared foods and leftovers

A significant amount of food waste comes from both homes and restaurants in the form of prepared foods that are not eaten in time. This includes leftovers from meals that are not consumed.

Grains and pasta

While these items often have a longer shelf life, they can still contribute to food waste, particularly when cooked in too-large quantities that are not consumed.


These can be wasted if they’re not used by their sell-by date or if they break during transport or storage.


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