Project Summary

Life Cycle Assessment of Food Loss Associated with Current U.S. Consumption Compared to the Recommended USDA Food Pattern

Principle Investigator(s):
Greg Thoma and Daesoo Kim
Ralph E. Martin Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Arkansas
Completion Date:
November 2014

A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization1 reported that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. Food is lost or wasted throughout the entire supply chain, from agricultural production to final household consumption. This means that an enormous amount of the resources used in food production and processing are wasted, resulting in avoidable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Thus, reducing food loss and waste in each supply chain is an effective way of achieving national and corporate environmental goals. The environmental impact categories that are comprised in the evaluation include categories for which impact characterization is available. For the Comprehensive Environmental Data Archive (CEDA)2 economic input-output life cycle assessment (EIO-LCA) model, this includes a wide range of potential categories, but we focus on those available using the TRACI 2.1 impact framework3 (which has U.S. specific characterization factors) that is available in SimaPro 8 (PRé Consultants, The Netherlands, 2014) as well as through an Excel® interface from CEDA. The TRACI 2.1 method includes the mid-point indicators: global warming potential, eutrophication potential, acidification potential, ozone depletion, ecotoxicity, cancer and non-cancer health effects, smog formation potential as well as fossil fuel depletion.


In this study, life cycle assessment (LCA) was used to quantify the potential environmental impacts of food loss associated with actual current U.S. food consumption compared to the recommended USDA Food Pattern4. This work analyzed the environmental impacts of all the individual food groups found in the USDA ERS Food Pattern using loss-adjusted national food availability data by mapping food waste across the life cycle stages. These food groups include total vegetables, beans/peas, fruit/juices, total grains, milk/dairy products, red meat (i.e., beef, veal, pork, and lamb), poultry, eggs, fish/seafood, nuts/seeds/soy products, solid fats/oils, and added sugars (sweeteners). The data series provide annual per-capita food production, waste and availability for a full spectrum of food commodities in the United States, adjusted for food spoilage and other losses to closely approximate per-capita intake5. Life cycle estimates of environmental impacts for the food commodity groups are modeled and analyzed using a hybrid tiered input-output (IO) based approach with SimaPro 8 (PRé Consultants, The Netherlands, 2014) as the computational platform. Each food commodity group is modeled using a sectoral analysis based on the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis (US DOC, BEA)6 commodity groups with EIO-LCA (CEDA) coupled with process models for the post production distribution and management of the food waste.

results and discussion

The total avoidable and unavoidable food loss at the primary, retail and consumer levels amounts to 108 million tons (237 billion pounds)7 associated with the current consumption, representing 46% of annual food production by weight in U.S. Food loss reaches 147 million tons (325 billion pounds)7 when U.S. citizens were modeled to follow the USDA CNPP dietary guidelines8. The life cycle estimation associated with the production of the lost and wasted food results in total GHG emissions of 378 MMT CO2e per year (3.39 kg CO2e capita-1 day-1) associated with current consumption, and it increases to 418 MMT CO2e per year (3.75 kg CO2e capita-1 day-1) associated with USDA FP recommendation. Under the current intake pattern, food loss by total red meat group is the single largest GHG emissions contributor representing 33.9% of total. Based on USDA recommended FP, food losses by total vegetables (27.2% of total) and fruit/juices (23.2%) groups become two major GHG emissions contributor followed by total red meat group (16.2%). In the total red meat group, beef is the dominant GHG emissions contributor because of its relatively larger emission intensity, representing 73.8% of the group emissions, and it is equivalent to 25.0% of total emissions although beef accounts for only 5.6% of total loss by weight associated with current consumption. It decreases to 11.8% of total GHG emissions if U.S. citizens followed the USDA recommended FP while it only accounts for 2.1% of total loss by weight under the revised scenario. The total vegetables group presents the highest impact on ozone depletion, carcinogens, noncarcinogens, and ecotoxicity impact categories. Farming activities and waste disposal are two major processes that drive these outcomes. The total red meat group is the major contributor to global warming, smog, acidification, respiratory effects as well as fossil fuel depletion impact categories. Animal farming and animal production activities are the main processes driving these impacts. In eutrophication impact, the poultry group is the key contributor followed by the total red meat and egg groups under the current consumption pattern. Total vegetables and fruit/juices groups show a significant increase for all of the impact categories, whereas total red meat group shows a significant decrease on all of the impact categories under the scenario following the USDA dietary guidelines.

industry Implications

Overall environmental impacts would be greater if U.S. citizens were to follow the USDA dietary guidelines with the largest increase observed among the total vegetables, fruit/juice, and dairy product food groups. The reduction in environmental impacts from food loss given reduced consumption of total red meat would be significant for global warming but would represent nominal improvements for other impact categories. Consequently, a shift in dietary patterns towards those recommended in the USDA dietary guidelines does not lead to GHG emissions reduction, but rather results in an increase of 10.6%. This is mainly because even with a decrease in total red meat consumption, there is significant increase in fruit, vegetables, and dairy consumption. This result highlights the importance of incorporating environmental considerations into dietary guidelines.


1. Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R., Meybeck, A. (2011) Global Food Losses and Food Waste. Available at: 

2. Suh, S. (2005) Developing a sectoral environmental database for input-output analysis: the Comprehensive Environmental Data Archive of the US. Economic Systems Research, 17(4):449- 469. 

3. Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI) 

4. USDA Food Pattern Equivalents Database. 

5. USDA (2014) ERS Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System. 

6. BEA (2008) US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. Benchmark InputOutput, 2002 data files. 

7. Scrafford, C., Barraj, L.M., Barrett, E. (2014) Food loss associated with current U.S. intakes compared to the recommended USDA Food Pattern. Center for Chemical Regulation and Food Safety, Exponent, Inc. 

8. USDA Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion (CNPP).