Food Loss and Waste in a Time of Pandemics

Disruptions to the food system from COVID-19 are creating unprecedented levels of postharvest loss and food waste.


The productivity and sustainability of our agriculture and food systems are constantly threatened by pandemic outbreaks of disease and pests. The Harvest 2050 blog is providing a weekly-updated list of resources and articles that explore the threats to agricultural productivity, food security, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability from diseases and pests that sicken and kill people, livestock, and crops.

The 2020 GAP Report will also explore these themes, as well as describing technologies, practices, and policies that foster productivity growth, while also mitigating the risks of pandemic disease and threats. 

We will keep this list current, so follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn, where we’ll share as we update this blog. Past resource lists are available here, and linked at the bottom of each blog.

Pandemics Exacerbate Food Loss and Waste

As unemployment skyrockets and our food systems reel from COVID-19-related impacts, every morsel of food counts toward keeping populations fed and healthy. Yet, pandemics and similarly impactful world events can lead to extraordinary food loss and waste in every corner of the globe.

Drastic reductions in food loss and waste are already necessary outside of the context of the current crisis to ensure our agriculture systems are sustainable. Reducing food loss and waste increases the availability and affordability of nutritious food, eases the environmental impact of food and agricultural production, and preserves the value of the land, labor, water, and other inputs used in the production process.

Foods with high nutrient content (fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and lean meats) are also the most likely to spoil quickly and end up in the trash can. In the U.S., fruits and vegetables alone account for almost 40 percent of food waste, 17 percent is milk and dairy products, and 13.5 percent is meat.

Daily Per Capita Food Waste by U.S. Consumers, 2007-2014 (annual average) chart.
Source: [1]

Not only do spoiled foods produce methane, they are a waste of the agricultural resources used to produce them. To produce the food that is wasted in the U.S. in one year, you would need 30 million acres of cropland (10 percent of the cropland in the U.S.) and 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water (most of which would be used to produce fruits and vegetables).

Agricultural inputs and resources used to produce wasted food (U.S) chart.
Source: [1]

Pandemics like COVID-19 can particularly show the cracks in the system that make reducing food loss and waste a worldwide challenge. This week’s blog is focused on following issues around food loss and waste and how they intersect with the supply chain in times of world crisis to shine light on challenges we face globally in reducing food loss and waste.


A photo of produce rotting in a field.

On Postharvest Loss and Food Waste

Measures taken to combat the spread of a virus during a pandemic can lead to drastic loss of agricultural productivity. For instance, closing borders may mean migrant agricultural workers are unable to help with harvests on farms. Without the workers, food goes to waste rotting in a field — an impact we are already witnessing due to COVID-19.

Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic (The New York Times; April 11, 2020)

  • In this comprehensive report, The New York Times details the reality of food loss and waste faced by farmers and producers across the U.S.

Food goes to waste amid coronavirus crisis (Politico; April 5, 2020)

  • Demand for food has dramatically shifted from food service to food retail, leaving manufacturers to adapt in the wake. For those that can adapt, this isn’t a simple transition, especially given the strict timeline of food production for growers and producers. Others may not be able to make the transition, which leads to food loss and waste.

Some Vermont dairy farms dump milk amid uncertainty of coronavirus crisis (VTDigger; April 5, 2020)

  • Due to shifts in the market as a result of COVID-19, there is far more supply of milk than demand for it. In Vermont, this has resulted in some producers dumping milk so as not to oversaturate the existing market, while creating a ripple effect for businesses like cheese makers who are also experiencing a downturn in revenue.

Canada, U.S. farms face crop losses due to foreign worker delays (Reuters; April 6, 2020)

  • Mandatory quarantines and travel restrictions present issues for farms dependent on seasonal foreign workers. With workers showing up delayed or not at all, farmers may be unable to harvest as planned, leading to food loss, waste, and insecurity.


A photo of a man driving a truck.
Credit: World Bank

On Supply Chain

If supply chains break down, producers have no means of offloading their supply. During pandemics, as fears lead to trade restrictions, it’s crucial to maintain supply chains to ensure food can actually reach the table, otherwise food — and the effort needed to produce it — is wasted.

The Farm-to-Table Connection Comes Undone (The New York Times; April 9, 2020)

  • Farmers dependent on the farm-to-table ecosystem have been left to scramble to find a market for their produce. This particularly hurts specialty growers who planned harvests intended for restaurateurs or markets that have shuttered with COVID-19-related measures. Some growers have even been left to turn their crops to compost.

Coronavirus could double number of people going hungry (The Guardian; April 9, 2020)

  • Food industry leaders are urging world leaders to keep borders open to trade, or else risk “a global food and humanitarian crisis” as the food supply is interrupted, putting vulnerable populations especially at risk.

Farmers Are Panic-Buying to Keep America’s 95 Million Cows Fed (Bloomberg Businessweek; April 8, 2020)

  • Just like American consumers who are stocking their pantries, farmers are stocking up on feed for livestock, fearing coronavirus-related disruptions to the supply chain. Even feed for companion animals hiked: Purina saw a more than 20 percent boost in sales in their companion animal segment.

COVID-19 has widespread impact on ag (Feedstuffs; April 3, 2020)

  • Projections of the impact of COVID-19 on prices of food products look grim as supply chains scramble to meet the demand of consumers — despite the ample supply of food available from producers and growers.

How the coronavirus has — and has not — disrupted the global supply chain (Virginia Tech News; April 3, 2020)

  • When the supply chain is impacted by changes in supply and demand, it can lead to a phenomenon known as the bullwhip effect, explains a Virginia Tech researcher. This refers to the increasing swings in inventory in response to shifts in customer demand as one moves further up the supply chain.



[1]: Conrad Z, Niles MT, Neher DA, Roy ED, Tichenor NE, Jahns L (2018) Relationships between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability, PLoS ONE 13(4): e0195405.


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