The scope of food waste in agriculture

Millions of tons of food waste happen at farms every single year


It’s easy to wrap your head around how food waste happens in your day-to-day life. You can’t ignore bags of decaying veggies in your fridge forever, and you probably notice when a waiter takes away a half-full bread basket at the end of a meal.

But when it comes to food waste in agriculture, much of the problem happens out of sight. Yet millions of tons of food waste happens at farms every single year.

How much food waste comes from farms?

Although American households created 42.8 million tons of food waste in 2022 alone, quite a lot of food never makes it off of farms. ReFED, a national food waste–focused nonprofit, finds that American farms created 14.9 million tons of food waste (about 16.8% of the national total, that same year.1 By comparison, American restaurants and food service providers wasted 13 million tons of food in 2022 while grocery retailers chucked around 4.9 million tons.

But those ReFED figures aren’t the whole picture. They only account for fresh foods like produce and dry foodstuffs—not for farmed animals. However, a December 2023 study published in Sustainable Production and Consumption noted that humans raise around 18 billion pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys every year that never get eaten.2

Although farms aren’t the biggest source of food waste in the U.S., the global farm food waste problem is enormous. A report issued by the World Wildlife Foundation and Tesco found farms around the world waste about 1.32 billion tons of food every single year. That’s more than retail shops, food service, and households combined. Those sectors collectively produce just over 1 billion tons of global food waste, according to the conservation nonprofit and British supermarket chain’s analysis.3 

Why is food wasted on farms?

The vast majority of agricultural food waste—just over 94%—was because the crop was never harvested, according to ReFED.4 Given the tight profit margins for farms, it may seem strange that farmers are wasting sellable food. But numerous economic factors, in addition to infrastructure and contractual hurdles, impact farmers’ abilities to sell everything they produce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At times, for instance, it might cost a farmer more money to harvest, ship, and process a crop than they’ll earn at market. “Prices of fresh produce can quickly rise or fall, especially when compared to other agricultural products,” explains the USDA in a blog post. Perishable products like fresh produce, meat and other animal products are subject to seasonal fluctuations in prices, whereas grains like corn and rice, which can be stored for a long time, tend to have stable prices over time. 

The cost of labor is a major factor with fresh produce in particular. Around half the cost of producing a head of lettuce is tied to labor, the USDA explains, while around one-third of the price of fresh tomatoes, spinach, and peaches is tied to wages.

Farmers also have to contend with agreed-upon standards to sell their goods to  retailers, manufacturers, and other buyers. A farmer may not be able to sell produce if it doesn’t meet agreed-upon standards related to aesthetics, quality or consumer wants. Some estimates show that in the United Kingdom 25% of apples, 20% of onions, and 13% of potatoes are wasted due to cosmetic flaws.5 The best way to combat this is to donate those less-than-shelf perfect veggies to food banks or other need-based organizations.

What are the environmental impacts of food waste on farms?

Most food wasted on a farm is left to decay in the fields, a practice that, according to studies, can at least help to nurture the soil.6 But around 5% is dumped, sent to landfills, or incinerated.7

Regardless of whether it comes from farms or from your dinner plate, the amount of wasted food sent to our landfills creates enough methane to rival the amount of carbon dioxide emissions spewed by 42 coal-fired power plants. 

Food also contributes to the nation’s landfill capacity problem. The U.S. is quickly running out of space to put its trash. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, many landfills are running close to capacity and a significant number are scheduled to close by 2050.

Then there are the resources used to create food that goes uneaten. More than 140 million acres of land, nearly 6 trillion gallons of fresh water, enough electricity to power 50 million American homes, and 14 billion pounds of fertilizer are used annually just on wasted food.8

How can farms reduce food waste?

Combating food waste at the farm isn’t as simple as harvesting all the food from the fields and sending it to market. But depending on a farm’s priorities, there are ways to reduce the amount or impact of food waste.

According to ReFED’s food waste solutions database, one of the most impactful ways to reduce the overall tonnage of wasted food is to turn it into livestock feed. That could help divert 2.61 million tons of agricultural food waste in the U.S. every year and create just under 4,000 jobs, the nonprofit estimates.

If a farm is more concerned about the amount of money it loses on wasted food every year, ReFED suggests working with buyers to expand their definition of acceptable product. “By expanding purchase specifications to allow for slightly more variation and include products that normally do not meet the restricted standards, on-farm waste is reduced and more products can be funneled through a wider variety of sales channels,” the nonprofit explains.

Another tip that can work for farms hoping to reduce food waste is gleaning. Gleaning is the process of gathering leftover crops from fields after the commercial harvest has already happened. This serves the dual purpose of reducing food waste left on the field and providing healthy food for those who may not otherwise have access.9 There are dozens of gleaning operations already at work across the country, and this website can help farmers and gleaners alike get involved. It’s relatively straightforward for farmers and consumers to get start their own gleaning project, as well: Just searching for donors via the National Farmers Market Search Engine, finding local community gardens, or finding farmers directly through the USDA’s state offices.

Additional reporting by Shreya Agrawal

  1. ReFed Insights Engine (2023)ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  2. Animal Lives Embodied in Food Loss and Waste, Sustainable Production and Consumption, Dec. 2023 ↩︎
  3. Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms, World Wildlife Fund-UK, 2021 ↩︎
  4. ReFed Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  5. Food Waste in England, House of Commons, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Apr. 2017 ↩︎
  6. On-Farm Food Loss in Northern and Central California: Results of Field Survey Measurements, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Oct. 2019 ↩︎
  7. ReFed Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  8. From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food WasteU.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Nov. 2021 ↩︎
  9. Combining Two Wrongs to Make Two Rights: Mitigating Food Insecurity and Food Waste Through Gleaning Operations, Food Policy, Apr. 2017 ↩︎