The root of food waste


There has been a growing interest in food waste. The general trend is to combat this phenomenon, but the factors that contributed to creating an issue of such magnitude are rarely addressed.

Food waste has several multifactorial drivers: cultural, personal, political, geographic, economic… These all influence eating behaviour in specific ways and may vary from one person to one another, from one period in time to another, and from one society to another.

Read our article: All you need to know about food waste

 A changing food system

The modernisation of the food system has contributed to a general increase in food waste. As a result of this transition, food is more abundant, available, accessible, inexpensive…and packed with calories. This, in turn, gives rise to overconsumption and a change in the type and amount of food wasted.

Industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation have distanced consumers from food. Whereas food was traditionally produced and prepared at home, production and preparation now often take place in factories. As a result, consumers are less concerned about who prepares their meal, compared with when they prepare it themselves or helped prepare it. The demographic growth in cities has significantly reduced the interaction between consumers and the agricultural sector. Consequently, consumers are not always aware of food composition and how food is produced. Following the transformation of the local food system into a global system, consumers now eat more non-local food that is produced around the world, which only increases the distance between consumers and what they eat.

An article that may interest you: Does local food always mean you are eating responsibly?


But the impact of these phenomena does not stop there. The growing consumption of processed products has also changed the type of waste we generate. Pea pods or the carcases of chickens have now become industrial waste, whereas packaging is increasingly becoming household waste. Food habits have changed, meaning our diet now contains more meat, poultry and fish. However, these products are more difficult to conserve and have a shorter shelf life. They are therefore more likely to end up in the dustbin than other types of food.

Food waste and cultural drivers

The amount of a food a society wastes also depends on cultural habits. The relationship between a population and food also influences the value that this population places on food. The United States and Australia, for example, have less of a food tradition, and the connection between the production and preparation of food on the one hand and its consumption on the other is tenuous. When a population takes a mainly functional approach to food, waste is more likely to be a problem.

In France, by contrast, food culture is deeply embedded in culture and has been developed over many years. Pleasure plays a key role in this. Countries with deep food cultures tend to be more resistant to the changes resulting from the modernisation of the food system, or at least they change more slowly.

The revolution of the Millennials

Studies about attitudes and behaviours have highlighted the correlations between food waste and certain socio-demographic characteristics. The oldest segment tends to waste less food, probably because these people experienced austerity and rationing during World War II.
At the same time, young generations are increasingly aware of the issue of food waste, which has given rise to movements such as “zero waste”. Millennials are increasingly turning to local, seasonal and environment-friendly food sources. There may soon be a reversal of this trend in other words!  

View our videos: Seasonal vegetables around the world


Other observations: households with children waste more food than households without children and smaller households (people who live alone) generate the most food waste.

Finally, food waste is a problem across all levels of income, but food waste increases the higher the household income. Conversely, studies have shown that the more repetitive the diet, the less food is wasted. This makes it easier to incorporate leftovers into new meals.

Read our e-book: How to prevent food waste
and our monograph: Food waste: issues, causes and facts

Thyberg K. et al., Technology & Society Faculty Publications, 2016, 11.