The problem of food waste in the US, the UK, and Japan

by Minako Kageyama Tanaka

This is the first of three blog posts by Minako Kageyama Tanaka* on food waste in the US, the UK, and Japan.

Food waste in the world

Many people pay attention to what they eat, but not to what they did not eat. According to an estimate released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of the edible part of food is wasted every year, which amounts to 1.3 billion tons per year. Given that between 720 and 811 million people are facing hunger and 2.37 billion people lack access to sufficient food, the amount of food waste is enormous. Besides, wasting food means wasting resources spent on food production and the supply chain.

To change the global consumption and production patterns in the food industry and its supply chain, the United Nations (UN) has set responsible consumption and production as one of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and calls for actions to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses” by 2030. The global society has only eight years left to achieve that goal.

Definition of Food loss and waste  

To approach the global challenge of food waste, we need to know what food waste and food loss are, and from where they come. Under the SDG framework, food loss and food waste differ at the point where waste is generated in the food supply chain. For example, if a farmer excludes some produces which are edible but irregular in size or below the visual standard before he sells it to a processor or a whole seller, the excluded produce is called food loss. If a supermarket employee decides to discard produce since it is damaged or expired, the removed produce is food waste.

This blog post focuses on “food waste” reduction because its sources are closer to the final consumer than food loss, and how we act in our daily life directly impacts the amount of food waste.

How much food waste is generated in the US, the UK and Japan?

Which country generates the most or least food waste in the world? A report of G20 countries shows that Russia, South Africa and Japan have performed better in total food waste generated from households, foodservice and retail among G20 countries. The report also highlights that the US has the fourth-lowest waste from households in G20 countries, while total food waste from the three sectors is the second-largest. Its household food waste (59kg) earned a better score than those in Japan (64kg) and the UK (77kg). The UK keeps the lowest index in retail food waste as well as Italy (4kg). Japan achieves the best score in food waste from food service. (15kg) [Table 2]

Although  national waste generation per capita–not only food waste but all types of waste–and GDP per capita strongly and positively correlate with each other, this is not the case with food waste. Among the top three countries in GDP per capita, the United States ($60,163), Germany ($51,259) and Australia ($48,697), only the US is in the top three countries generating the most food waste per capita. At the other end of the spectrum, among the lowest GDP per capita countries in G20, South Africa, Indonesia and India, South Africa is the only country that is one of the three lowest food waste generating countries. [Table 2] The food waste data suggests the possibility that some factors other than the national economic development level affect the amount of the total food waste generated in each G20 country. To explore other differences among countries than economic development, this blog looks at food waste management policies in the US, the UK and Japan. These three countries were selected because each country has (1) relatively extensive data set relating to food waste and (2) a highly developed economy with intensively industrialized food supply chains and high-income households, but (3) their forms of government and separation of powers between national and subnational governments are unique.

Table 1: GDP per capita and Food waste (red cell shows the top three countries and blue cell shows the bottom three countries)

*Minako Kageyama Tanaka is an LLM candidate at UCLA Law.

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