And the overall amount of waste could be twice what we previously thought.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated February 13, 2020
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In 2011, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) put an easily understandable estimate on global food waste: one third of all food that could be consumed wasn’t. The fraction is as simple to comprehend mathematically as it’s impossible to comprehend for its irresponsibility. And it’s a stat we’ve repeated numerous times at Food & Wine. But if you were shocked by the UN’s findings, consider sitting down for this: A new study released this week suggests that the one-third estimate may be way off. Actual global food waste may be twice as bad—and the richer the country, the worse the problem becomes.

“What we estimate is that FAO's original estimate of 214 calories per capita per day is actually a vast underestimate of the global food waste as we measure it, because we have a factor two larger estimate of 527 calories per capita per day,” Thom Achterbosch, a member of the research team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said according to the BBC. The difference apparently stems from a difference in calculation: While the FAO looked specifically at waste in supply, the new study continued to estimate food waste from consumers. And importantly, by also attempting to link consumer food waste to affluence, the study was also able to pinpoint where income can drastically change our food waste habits.

Jennifer A Smith/Getty Images

Specifically, the study found that when people are affluent enough to spend $6.70 per day they not only become more likely to start wasting food, but additionally, the amount of food they waste begins rising rapidly alongside their wealth (following a log curve, for the mathematically inclined). These findings could be significant, because, as we try to cut food waste, growing affluence in developing countries could be “a brewing potential future problem,” according to the study. “If these growing economies follow the same growth paths as the developed regions, we will soon see similar food waste patterns evolving. According to our estimates, [$6.70 per day per capita] is the level at which policy-makers should start paying particular attention to consumer food waste in a country and implement consumer awareness and education programs to counter it before it explodes.”

Though all these findings may sound alarming, the authors state that they hope they can have practical repercussions. “[Our study] provides a new globally comparable base against which one can measure progress on the international food waste target (SDG12), and suggests a threshold level of consumer affluence around which to launch intervention policies to prevent food waste from becoming a big problem,” the authors stated in a press release. Essentially, they propose a two-pronged approach: not only reducing existing food waste in wealthy countries, but preventing it in developing countries before it starts.

That said, it doesn’t mean it can’t serve as an everyday reminder for regular Americans, as well.