The socioeconomic impacts of food waste

$1 trillion worth of food is wasted every year, but millions still go hungry


Many American families throw away one-third or more of the food they purchase, yet millions of people in the United States face hunger. Around the world, an estimated 1.3 billion people did not have reliable or adequate access to needed food resources in 2022.1

From a socioeconomic perspective, if the billions of tons of food wasted annually around the world were saved, it would be more than enough to sustain those facing food insecurity every day. That waste, valued at about $1 trillion, mostly happens at the consumer level or in farm fields, where some estimates have found more than half of the vegetables left to rot were perfectly fine for harvesting and use.

What is food insecurity?

In the eyes of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food insecurity occurs when people “lack access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their needs for an active and healthy life.” Between 2021 to 2022, the number of people affected by hunger and food insecurity leapt up 10%, partially due to rising prices. An additional 118.7 million people worldwide faced food insecurity in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.2 

According to the EPA, the uneaten food that goes to waste in the U.S. alone contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people each year. Around 42 million Americans (that’s 12.8%) experience food insecurity.3

Food waste plays a key role in exacerbating a lack of access to food around the world, mainly through driving up prices. Landfilling a lot of grub puts more pressure on the resources used to produce those products and, ultimately, drives up prices, explains Ohio State University Professor Brian Roe. “Reducing food waste has two potential impacts on food security,” Roe says. The first, of course, is rescuing edible items for those who need them. “The less obvious one but more powerful one is if we were able to reduce [food waste] … food prices would go down by probably a nontrivial amount.”

If food waste was reduced by 10% or even 20%, he says, that would mean less land and resources would be needed for food in general. “If people just stop wasting as much, the whole system can adjust,” he adds.

What is the impact of food waste on the economy?

According to ReFED, a national nonprofit focused on food waste solutions, American food waste cost the country about $428 billion in 2022 alone.4 Worldwide, food waste results in close to $1 trillion in economic losses every year.

Experts estimate that more than half of those losses occur at the consumer level. At this stage, the losses are the most costly because of all of the resources that have already been consumed to get them into households. Just think about the land for growing food, the equipment and energy used to grow, harvest, manufacture, and produce it, the transportation needed to move it from place to place, and even packaging.

According to the EPA, the uneaten food that goes to waste in the U.S. alone contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people.

Aside from residential households, which in America generated an estimated $252 billion in surplus food, farms, food service, manufacturing, and retail industries also saw significant losses in 2022. The food service industry saw $138 billion worth of surplus food in 2022, about 80% of which ended up in a landfill (smaller percentages were also incinerated, composted, donated, or otherwise converted or disposed of). Manufacturing accounted for $40.3 billion dollars worth of surplus food, most of which went to making animal feed. Retail stores had about $31.2 billion in surplus food, nearly 30% of which was trashed, while another 19.3% was donated. About 18% of surplus food went each to composting and making animal feed as well. American farms accounted for about $12 billion in surplus produce items, about 86% of which was never even harvested.5 

Household waste at different income levels

Some studies show that higher income families and smaller households typically waste more food.6 But around the world, food waste happens at every income level.7 One study published out of Purdue University in 2020 indicates that food waste at the consumer level in high-income countries has overall “leveled off,” while per capita uneaten calories is “growing rapidly in middle income countries.”8 There’s also rapid growth in food waste in low-income countries, the study found, due to rising incomes, diversifying diets, and growing populations.

According to agricultural economics professor and food waste researcher Edward Jaenicke, many of the socioeconomic challenges of lost grub are also related to health. Lower income households tend to avoid purchasing healthy vegetables and fruits because they don’t want to spend limited resources on something that has a risk of going bad and going to waste, he says. “The link between socioeconomic status, health, and waste is, I think, a really big part of the story,” he says. 

However, the varying economic impacts of food waste do not occur in a bubble. Recent worldwide events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine are linked to fluctuating food prices with different effects on food security around the globe.9 

What is the social impact of wasting food?

The massive global challenge of food waste also has wide-ranging social impacts. It’s inextricably linked to issues of inequality, according to Feeding America. “A long history of racism and structural oppression has been perpetuated through policies that have caused many communities of color to face disparities in those drivers and, in turn, food insecurity itself,” the organization says.

“The link between socioeconomic status, health, and waste is, I think, a really big part of the story.”

Edward Jaenicke, Penn State University

Wasting food also has its impacts on the people who do it: Studies have found that emotional responses, “such as regret, guilt, and self-blame,” accompany tossing out otherwise good vittles.10 This psychological element can, in turn, be tied to a behavioral response personally noted by both Jaenicke and Roe: That the more you know, the less you waste.

Other major wasters

Because the most food is wasted at the consumer level, there are steps individuals and households can make to shop and eat more efficiently. That includes making a targeted list before shopping, being realistic with what you and your family will eat when making purchases, improving your skills in the kitchen by learning how to combine different ingredients in new ways, and optimizing your existing storage options.

However, consumers can’t take all of the blame. Tricky sell-by dates and oversized portions also lead to unnecessary food waste, researchers like Janenicke say. For example, hotdogs come in packs of 10 but there’s only 8 buns in a package. While many companies are taking steps to offset food waste, instances like that still exist, he notes.

What is the environmental impact of food waste?

Producing food eats up a lot of natural resources from land to water to energy, and contributes its own pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions at nearly every step in the supply chain. So when a chunk of that food ends up lost or wasted, so too are the resources used to make it. 

Some of the worst environmental offenders are animal-based products like meat and dairy. That’s largely because livestock requires a lot of resources (the land they live on, the waste they create, the food they require, and the energy needed for growing and processing) and meats are quick to spoil. Rice, meanwhile, is a methane offender; because it grows in low-oxygen conditions in its production. The grain has historically contributed about 8% of the world’s total output of the potent greenhouse gas.11 

Food waste stats from around the world

A lack of consistent reporting on food waste across countries, companies, and individuals means it’s hard to pin down exact data on the global totals. One U.N. report, for example, estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food—about one-third or more of what’s produced for people to eat—goes to waste worldwide every year.12 That’s about the same weight as 173 million African elephants. Other analysis says organizations annual losses could be as high as twice that amount, closer to 2.75 billion tons annually.13 

Data published by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2021 shows that households in China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the United States wasted the most food in the world as of 2021.14 Together, households in these five countries account for over 235 million metric tons of food waste each year. That doesn’t count the millions of pounds lost at other points of production, such as on farms and at the manufacturing, food service, and retail levels.

How can we reduce food waste?

One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals aims to slash global food waste in half by 2030. It will take millions of people shopping, eating, and thinking about their food consumption and waste more efficiently in all corners of the world to meet that goal.

To achieve that, there are dozens of proposed food waste solutions for every sector of the supply chain. For example, ReFED suggests grocers and wholesalers integrate software that spots surpluses and adjusts pricing accordingly. Proposed federal policies to improve food labeling systems could also help offset waste created by people tossing products before they’ve actually spoiled.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food Waste Pact launched by ReFED and the World Wildlife Fund aims to focus on collaborations with businesses and others in the food industry to “accelerate progress toward their waste reduction targets.” The idea is to actually collect and use food waste data to make changes, not just sign on to well-meaning commitments. The two organizations, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic, also make up the Zero Food Waste Coalition, another nonprofit-driven effort to stem the tide on wasted food in America.

At the government level, individual states can implement policies to make it easier to donate leftovers or scraps or follow in the steps of other countries that have implemented successful food waste offset programs, like South Korea’s laws that favor composting over landfilling and essentially created food waste fees.

There’s also the broad concept of a “circular economy,” in which all waste, especially food waste, is repurposed. The idea is finding ways for food that would otherwise be lost to be reused for things like creating nutrient-rich compost to grow more food.

  1. International Food Security Assessment, 2022–32, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sep. 2022 ↩︎
  2. Ibid ↩︎
  3. Household food security in the United States in 2022, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2023 ↩︎
  4. In the U.S., 38% of All Food Goes Unsold or Uneaten – and Most of that Goes to Waste, ReFED ↩︎
  5. Ibid ↩︎
  6. Estimating Food Waste as Household Production Inefficiency, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Jan. 2020 ↩︎
  7. Global Food Waste Across the Income Spectrum: Implications for Food Prices, Production and Resource Use, Food Policy, Jan. 2021 ↩︎
  8. Ibid ↩︎
  9. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023, FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, 2023 ↩︎
  10. Modeling the intention and adoption of food waste prevention practices among Chinese households, Humanities and Social Sciences Communication, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  11. The Global Methane Budget 2000–2017, Earth System Science Data, Jul. 2020 ↩︎
  12. Global Food Losses and Food Waste, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011 ↩︎
  13. Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms, World Wildlife Fund, Aug. 2021 ↩︎
  14. UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, UN Environment Program, Mar. 2021 ↩︎