Food is Food Blog

A standard for the better measurement of food waste

To date one of the key issues with the measurement of food loss and waste (FLW) is the inconsistencies in terms of how it is being measured and reported. Quite frankly it is all over the map. Measurement styles are divided between indirect (i.e. using datasets and inferring FLW) and direct (i.e. gathering, sorting and weighing samples) methods. Data is presented side by side and it is difficulty to determine if the resultant variability is in fact variability or that it reflects the inconsistency of measurement methods. Policy makers are almost certainly making decisions using inaccurate data.

The recently released “Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard” http://flwprotocol.org seeks to bring some order and maturity to the measurement of FLW. The multi-stakeholder Food Loss & Protocol group prepared this weighty document. It is set up as a standard and its implicit end goal is that everyone measuring FLW use this as a consistent measurement and reporting approach.

The standard requires those using it to include: timeframe, materials type (avoidable and/or unavoidable food), destination (where is the food waste going) and boundary (what is and is not being measured- e.g. part of food supply chain, geography etc.). The standard also include a clear set of steps that need to be followed (see Figure 3). These steps are really more about developing a standardized approach and the need for this (or these steps) are certainly not unique to the measurement of FLW.Figure 3The key strength of this document is to set out a flexible path that everyone from a country to a local restaurant could use to measure its FLW. This is good because it means everyone can participate. The downside of this standard is that its prescriptiveness does not move beyond the setting up and using a framework. For instance it envisions both direct measurement and inferential measurement as options. One of the current problems with FLW measurement is that it is largely inferential. Large datasets of food availability are being used and factors applied to estimate FLW. The factors can be old and quite frankly suspect. It is disappointing that the standard did not take a stand in favour of direct measurement (i.e. collecting, separating and weighing waste samples). They acknowledge that it provides more accurate results but do not specify its use. I get that flexibility trumps prescriptiveness, and that this has some benefit, however, it will still result in results of direct and inferential measurements being placed side by side and its apples and oranges compared.

The other quibble I would have, and this is subtler, is the standard’s focus on FLW destination (e.g. landfill, composting etc.). This means that the standard is focused on waste not food. This is literally correct but subliminally wrong. Food follows a path and at some point crosses what I call the green line between food as food and food as waste. We need to measure FLW within the context of determining how to prevent it from reaching those destinations. We want to measure food waste as the food it should have been not the waste that it has become.

Green Line

The Green Line

This standard is good and necessary and everyone involved in preventing or least reducing food from becoming waste should read it. The authors call this standard Version 1 and recognize that this is an important first step in the evolution of developing accurate and more actionable FLW data.