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By Luciana Delgado and Sara Gustafson

 Photo credit: CGIAR



Reducing food loss along the entire value chain can play an important role in improving global and local food security. However, accurate, standardized definitions and measurements of food loss have proven elusive. Without being able to properly understand the scope of the problem, policymakers and researchers will find it difficult to enact effective policies to address it. Two recent studies from researchers at IFPRI, KU Leuven, and UN FAO aim to improve the way food loss are studied and measured in order to provide a clearer policy roadmap.

Food loss is important

Addressing food loss is important for several reasons. First, food security policies often focus on increasing yields and production, but policies aimed at reducing food loss are often less cost- and time-intensive. Second, reducing food loss can also improve the efficiency in the use of natural resources and help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Third, reducing losses along the agricultural value chain can boost producers’ incomes by getting a price premium for better quality produce and decrease consumers’ expenses by increasing available supply, with positive implications for poor populations

Innovative methodologies

A 2021 paper published in Food Policy combines traditional methodology and three innovative methodologies to better quantify food loss and identify how and where food loss occurs for different commodities and value chain nodes. A second paper published in Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy uses econometric modeling to measure food losses along staple food value chains. The research informing both papers expands existing definitions of food loss to include pre-harvest losses and includes losses in  quantity, quality and value. The work looks at food loss among producers, middlemen, and processors in staple value chains in six countries: potato in Peru and Ecuador, maize and beans in Honduras and Guatemala, teff in Ethiopia, Maize in Mozambique and wheat in China.


The new methodologies measure both quantity and quality losses and consist of the category method that classifies crops into quality categories; the attribute method that evaluates crops according to inferior visual, tactile, and olfactory product characteristics; and the price method that assumes that higher (or lower) prices reflect higher (or lower) quality. These three methodologies show larger food losses than the traditional aggregate self-reported methodology, because of the disaggregation of the elements behind the losses and because they capture both quantity and quality losses.  They also allow for important distinctions to be made among producers, middlemen, and processors. These distinctions could allow for more accurately targeted policies to address food loss where it actually occurs.

Losses are consistently highest at the producer level

Losses are consistently highest at the producer level: 60-80 percent of total losses and can be mainly attributed to the pre harvest stage. Losses at the middleman level, on the other hand, account for only 7 percent. Across both studies, pests, crop diseases, unfavorable climate conditions (especially low rainfall), and lack of mechanized harvest practices and appropriate storage facilities appear to be important drivers of food loss at the producer level.


Beyond these immediate micro-level causes of food loss

Both papers highlight the need to look beyond these immediate micro-level causes of food loss in order to effectively address the problem. More broadly, poor road infrastructure and lack of access to credit and financing also play an important role, particularly in rural areas and for small producers. In addition, demographics also appear to have a part in determining food losses. The research found that more educated and experienced producers appear to experience significantly less loss.

Targeted policies to address food loss

The extent of all of these factors varied by commodity, however. This highlights perhaps the most important finding from both papers: Policymakers and researchers need to continue to collect evidence-based information from specific value chains and at specific nodes in order to create targeted policies to address food loss. 




By Luciana Delgado and Alan de Brauw published in May 7 2020

This post originally appeared on

Photo by Devrig Velly EU/ECHO


The SDG 12.3 target calls 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. It is already 2020, and the rapid spread of COVID-19 has raised – along with concerns about general food shortages - the threat of renewed food loss as the world’s food systems are being affected by quickly changing demand patterns.

To create better strategies to reduce food loss and waste, it is important to first measure them accurately and consistently. Measurement, however, is a tricky business. As discussed in the 2019 Report on the State of Food and Agriculture, assessing food loss and waste is not straightforward. It has been done using various methodologies, making it difficult to even compare measurements. Oftentimes, differences in results stem from how the loss is measured rather than from differences in harvest practices, storage, or other factors.

To help make estimates of food loss along the value chain clearer and more consistent over time, researchers supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) developed detailed survey modules that can be applied to different components of the food value chain and adjusted to specific commodities. The methodology not only incorporates components of the Food Loss Index for SDG 12.3.1, i.e. on farm post-harvest, transport, storage and distribution, processing and packaging; but it also includes losses identified at the pre-harvest and harvest level, thus capturing the entire value chain up to the consumer.

PIM methodology

This methodology allows a quantification of the extent of food loss across the value chain using consistent approaches, comparable across commodities and regions. We can characterize the nature of food loss, specifically the production stages and processes at which the loss happens. Furthermore, it is possible to provide estimates of food losses in different ways: subjective estimates (based on self-reported data); quality attributes lost (inferior visual, tactile, and olfactory product characteristics); and reductions in value, or the price received per unit output (based on the reasoning that price differences of a product in the same locations and in the same time period reflect quality differences.

The methodology was piloted in Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Ethiopia, China, and Malawi in 2016, followed by Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania in 2019-2020. For each country and crop combination, the specification of the survey was slightly adjusted to make it more relevant to the context. For example, in Guatemala, the instrument, adjusted for beans, included five quality categories (ranging from 1-2% to over 25% of damaged grain) and thirteen quality attributes (dirty/not clean, chopped, size (small), presence of weevils, acid odor, wrinkled grain, swollen from moisture, rotted by moisture, humid, damage by fungus, different colors, broken grain, other odors).

Results and conclusion

Across all value chains for which post-farm measures are available, we estimate food losses at between 6 and 28 percent of total production and total produced value. Loss figures are consistently largest at the producer level, which means that much less value is lost within the value chain between producer and consumer. Loss at the producer level tends to represent between 60 and 80 percent of the total value chain loss, while the average loss at the middleman and processor levels lies between 7 and 19 percent. figures are larger than those recently obtained by Kaminski and Christiansen (2014) and Minten et al. (2016a and b) due to the inclusion of qualitative loss, but generally much smaller than the oft-cited statistic that one-third of food is lost or wasted.

These results suggest that interventions to reduce food loss should concentrate on the farm link of the value chain, or close to it. It is important to target smallholders with techniques that help them grow food with more marketable attributes (to reduce value loss) and improve on- or near-farm storage capabilities. As Brenda Mareri, SNV, noted, “Understanding the extent of food losses at each stage of the value chain, and its causes, helps SNV and the civil society groups we work with better target our advocacy for solutions.”

In the time of crisis such as the world is living through now, it is critical to use available resources as efficiently as possible. Consistently measuring post-harvest loss can help prioritize the right types of interventions to make sure that more nutritious food gets to consumers who need it.

Related publications

Luciana Delgado is research analyst and Alan De Brauw is senior research fellow at the Markets, Trade, and Institutions division of IFPRI. Alan De Brauw co-leads PIM's cluster of research on Interventions to Strengthen Value Chains and leads the cluster on Value Chains Research: Outreach and Scaling within Flagship 3: Inclusive and Efficient Value Chains.

Toward a sustainable food system: Reducing food loss and waste

Reducing food loss and waste can contribute to food security and sustainability. Measuring food loss and waste, identifying where in the food system it occurs, and developing effective policies along the value chain are essential first steps toward addressing the problem. We need to set concrete targets at regional and country levels to reduce food loss and waste. For developed countries, the focus should be on waste; for developing countries, the focus in the short term should be on food loss, but also consider best practices for reducing waste in the longer term.

Commodity Systems Assessment Methodology for Value Chain Problem and Project Identification: A first step in food loss reduction

This manual provides a methodology for identifying problems and causes leading to postharvest food losses along an agricultural value chain. It describes the process of finding solutions that reduce food losses. The manual is organized as follows. The first three chapters highlight the importance of reducing food losses and describe the agricultural value chain. Chapter 4 identifies 26 priority components where food losses can occur along agricultural value chains.

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