A study published in PLOS ONE suggests that consumers are likely wasting much more food than is widely believed. The researchers found that widely used estimates do not account for the effects of affluence on consumer behavior—and affluent consumers waste more food.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that in 2005, one-third of all food available for human consumption was wasted. This figure continues to serve as a reference for the extent of global food waste along the food supply chain. Using the FAO estimate of one-third, existing literature calculated a corresponding number in calories—24% of calories were wasted, and 8% of that amount was wasted by consumers alone.

However, the researchers noted that the FAO methodology and, therefore, the calorie waste estimate based on it, does not factor in consumer behavior regarding food waste; food supply alone determines the extent of food waste. This study is the first to investigate if and how consumer affluence may affect their food waste. Using a human metabolism model and data from FAO, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization, the researchers quantified the relationship between food waste and consumer affluence. Using this model, they created an international dataset, providing estimates of global as well as country-specific food waste.

The results suggest that the 8% figure is too low, and consumers could be responsible for as much as 19% of wasted calories. The authors also found that once consumer affluence reaches a spending threshold of approximately $6.70 per person per day, consumer food waste starts to rise—increasing rapidly with rising affluence at first, and then at much slower rates at higher levels of affluence. This suggests that even in the lower-middle income category, more affluent countries already face a risk of a rapid rise in their food waste.

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