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A Systems Approach to Assessing Environmental and Economic Effects of Food Loss and Waste Interventions in the United States

Published: April 2019
Bibliographic reference: Mary K. Muth, Catherine Birney, Amanda Cuéllar, Steven M. Finn, Mark Freeman, James N. Galloway, Isabella Gee, Jessica Gephart, Kristal Jones, Linda Low, Ellen Meyer, Quentin Read, Travis Smith, Keith Weitz, Sarah Zoubek. Science of the Total Environment, Volume 685, 1 October 2019, Pages 1240-1254

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Reducing food loss and waste (FLW) is critical for achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Within the United States, 30% to 50% of food produced is lost or wasted. These losses occur throughout multiple stages of the food supply chain from production to consumption. Reducing FLW prevents the waste of land, water, energy,and other resources embedded in food and is therefore essential to improving the sustainability of food systems. Despite the increasing number of studies identifying FLW reduction as a societal imperative, we lack the information needed to assess fully the effectiveness of interventions along the supply chain. In this paper, we synthesize the available literature, data, and methods for estimating the volume of FLW and assessing the full environmental and economic effects of interventions to prevent or reduce FLW in the United States. We describe potential FLW interventions in detail, including policy changes, technological solutions, and changes in practices and behaviors at all stages of the food system from farms to consumers and approaches to conducting economic analyses of the effects of interventions. In summary, this paper comprehensively reviews available information on the causes and consequences of FLW in the United States and lays the groundwork for prioritizing FLW interventions to benefit the environment and stakeholders in the food system.

FLW has substantial environmental consequences and although solutions are being pursued, most have not been assessed in an economic framework. To do so requires developing measures of both the potential environmental benefits and the costs of implementing interventions.Assessment of the environmental benefits and economic costs depends on whether interventions focus on prevention, recovery, or recycling of FLW and whether they are mandated or adopted on a voluntary basis.This paper provides background information for developing an integrated modeling approach for prioritizing investments in FLW interventions while considering costs to industry, consumers, and government relative to environmental benefits. The information synthesized in this paper indicates the importance of prioritizing FLW prevention over recovery and recycling, given the high amount of virtual resources lost when food is wasted, but better data and further research are needed to rank the cost-effectiveness of specific interventions.

Supplementary data to this article can be found online at