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What Causes Food Loss and Waste?

Food Loss

Food can be lost for a variety of reasons. On the farm, food can be lost due to natural causes, such as weather, pests, and disease. It is also common for food that is both nutritious and delicious to be passed over due to cosmetic reasons. This “ugly” food accounts for approximately 20 per cent of all produce that is thrown away. That’s every one in five fruits and vegetables lost because it might have an odd shape, different colour, or slight defect.(1)

Did You Know?

Sweet potatoes need to be harvested by hand due to their soft skin. Machine harvesting can cause scrapes that prevent these vegetables from passing appearance standards.(2)

Loss isn’t just limited to crop farming, however. Animal agriculture also sees loss due to cosmetic reasons. For example, it is estimated that 8 per cent of fish caught worldwide are discarded. This is about 78.3 million tonnes of fish every year.(3)

Other economic factors are also to blame. For example, fluctuations in seasonal supply and demand can cause food loss. It’s difficult to predict how much food the population needs or desires, and inadequate forecasting can cause an imbalance. Order cancellations or overproduction to ensure an agreed upon contract is met can result in too much supply with not enough demand. Not having enough employees to help with the harvest or having poor storage, handling, and transportation infrastructure post-harvest can also cause spoilage to occur. Avoidable food loss at the production level accounts for 6 per cent of all avoidable food loss and waste (FLW) in Canada.(4)

Did You Know?

In Canada, we waste 470,000 heads of lettuce, 1.2 million tomatoes, 2.4 million potatoes, 750,000 loaves of bread, 1.2 million apples, 555,000 bananas, 1 million cups of milk, and 450,000 eggs everyday.(5)

When food enters the processing and manufacturing stages, this is where the largest portion of Canada’s FLW occurs. In fact, processing and manufacturing accounts for 43 per cent of all avoidable FLW in the country.(4) During this stage, food is combined with other ingredients to make new products or is packaged for consumer purchase. This process generates loss when edible portions are trimmed off of the food. These portions, usually consisting of fat, skin, peels, or crust, while edible, usually aren’t preferred eating.(3) However, food can also be trimmed into certain shapes and sizes to fit into packaging or for aesthetic reasons like with french fries, creating unnecessary loss.

Loss because of transportation and distribution is more common in developing regions without access to modern technology. Nearly 20­–50 per cent of all food produced in these regions is lost before reaching the consumer.(6) This is largely due to poor storage and transportation techniques. Connecting these farms to market would double their crop yield(7) by supplying them with the roads and technology they need to safely store and transport their produce at proper refrigerated temperatures. This keeps more food in the supply chain and prevents unnecessary losses. In Canada, transportation and distribution only account for 5 per cent of the country’s total avoidable FLW.(4)

Food Waste

Food waste begins in the retail stage of the supply chain, and it’s usually perishable products, such as fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, and baked goods, that fall victim to spoilage, as they have the shortest shelf life. Other factors also play a role. Full shelves might look appealing and cheaper bulk prices might seem like great deals, but waste can occur due to overstocking and bulk packaging. Food is left to spoil because there are too many choices or consumers purchase more than they can finish. Also, like in the production stage, food can be passed over by shoppers due to cosmetic reasons. Best before dates can also mean food that is still nutritious and safe for consumption is wasted because it is no longer considered “fresh.”(8) In Canada, retail waste accounts for 12 per cent of all avoidable FLW.(4)

Restaurants and hotels have similar numbers at 13 per cent of all avoidable FLW.(4) This is often due to oversized portions or extensive menus. Sometimes food can be poorly stored or over-prepared as well, causing it to spoil. Buffets are a major cause of food waste, as they are often fully stocked all day. This results in a large portion of the food being thrown away when what’s sitting out needs to be refreshed.(3)

Lastly, in Canada, household waste accounts for 21 per cent of total avoidable FLW.(4) This is the second highest cause of waste in the food supply chain, and is one of the most easily preventable. This number is even higher in the United States, where it is estimated that household food waste is the primary cause of all FLW at 40 to 50 per cent. Two-thirds of food waste at this level is caused by food spoiling in refrigerators, cupboards, and counters before it can be eaten. The other third is due to household cooks over-preparing food and tossing the extras.(3)

Did You Know?

In Canada, approximately 10% of the fresh produce bought by consumers is thrown out.(9)

The causes of FLW are numerous and complex, but in all stages of the food supply chain, businesses, governments, and individuals can work together to solve this global issue. By identifying the causes of FLW, we can effectively innovate solutions that will prevent further social, economic, and environmental impacts on our planet and its people.

For more information on food loss and waste explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.


6 National Academy of Agricultural Sciences—Storing Grains for Food Security and Sustainability, 2012


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