How to reduce food loss and food waste

Reducing food loss and food waste is the simplest way to increase food security and help feed a growing world population.

women sorting oranges before packaging
women picking oranges before packaging

It is estimated that 1-1.6 billion people could be fed with the food humans unnecessarily discard each year.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (1), food loss refers to food that gets spilled or spoilt before it reaches its final product or retail stage.

Food waste is food that is fit for human consumption but is not consumed because it is or left to spoil or rejected by retailers or consumers.

In industrialized countries, 40 percent of the food is discarded at consumer level. This is often because the plants do not look good enough, in the eyes of the consumers.

But in developing countries, 40 percent of the food is discarded during the harvest, storage or transport, before the produce even reaches the consumers.

This is often due to substandard equipment for harvesting, storage and handling of crops. Lack of knowledge among farmers about the benefits of balanced crop nutrition also impacts food waste.

Food waste from field to market


How to avoid food waste and food loss with the help of nutrients

Nutrient deficiencies have a negative impact on crop produce, which often leads to them being rejected by the shops and consumers. This can be avoided with the help of correct fertilizing.

Here are some examples:

Cereals: If wheat grains have too little nitrogen in the form of proteins and this wheat is used to bake, the bread will fail to rise sufficiently.

If the cereal crops have too much nitrogen, they can fall over. This makes them difficult to harvest by machine and increases food loss.

Fruits: Lack of potassium will cause fruit to be smaller and have less color and sweetness than normal.

This often leads to fruit being discarded by the farmers before it reaches the shops because it fails to meet their standards.

Apples: Lack of calcium in apples will result in a condition called «bitter pit», that causes spots and marks in the fruit. The damaged look causes many apples to be discarded before they reach the shop shelves.

apples with calcium deificiency

"Up to 20% of a farmer’s crop fails to reach market specifications due to quality aspects, such as size, shape, color, sweetness or protein content. This off-spec crop is left on the field to be incorporated into the soil. Supplying the balanced nutrition can often reduce the percentage of these out-grades and in turn reduce food waste, increasing the percentage of crop that reaches the consumer," says Miles Harriman, Yara Chief Agronomist. 

"Other crop management practices, in addition to nutrition are required to fully eliminate this infield waste," adds Miles.

With the correct use of fertilizers, more crops will achieve the strict specifications of size, shape, color and sweetness required by the food chains, meaning less food will be discarded before it reaches the shops. 

Fertilizers used to supply the correct balance of nutrients can also enhance the crops’ shelf life, reducing the risk for food loss further.

Different ways to reduce food waste and food loss

Cutting food waste by half and reducing food loss markedly by 2030 is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2).

On a consumer level, this can be achieved by getting consumers and shops to accept more produce that does not look «perfect». Many supermarkets have already started campaigns to change people´s views on edible fruits and vegetables.

“Up to 20% of a farmer’s crop fails to reach market specifications due to quality aspects, such as size, shape, colour, sweetness or protein content.”

Among farmers in developing countries, especially in Africa, the big potential lies in adopting more efficient harvesting and storage techniques. 

In ten African countries Yara works with the Farm To Market Alliance (3) to achieve this. The organization aims to help farmers maximize their crops through technical assistance and enable them to sell their products in a marketplace.

Less food loss and food waste mean less pollution

Reducing food waste does not only help to feed the world´s rising population. It also helps to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

This happens in two ways: Firstly, food waste that ends up in landfills produces large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. This can be avoided if we make better use of our edible food.

Secondly, when we eat more of our food, we have less need to produce more crops. When food is wasted, a lot of fresh water is also spent unnecessarily, in a time where such resources are becoming scarcer.

Making sure we eat more of our food is therefore one of the simplest ways we can relieve the pressures on the environment.


External resources: 

1 - Food Loss and Food Waste - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

2 -  UN - Sustainable Development Goals 

3 - Farm To Market Alliance