By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.
January 10, 2024

Study reveals how many animal lives are "wasted" in food production. We took a critical closer look.

18 billion animals end up in rubbish worldwide? Expertise for Animals looks behind the headlines of the study

The study "Animal lives embodied in food loss and waste" (1) is attracting a great deal of attention and discussion in the media. Among other things, it provides estimates of how many non-human animals die "in vain" in food production.

The scientists estimate that almost 18 billion non-human animals are hidden behind the losses and waste of global meat production. Expertise for Animals evaluates the study for the animal movements.

About the study

The study aims to close the gap between the published figures on food loss and waste and animal welfare considerations. So far the animal welfare aspect has been largely ignored in the debate on minimizing food losses and waste. The main focus has been on the considerable environmental impact. The results of the study should reduce food losses and waste as well as animal numbers.

The calculations were carried out for six animal species that are most frequently used in food production worldwide: pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys.

The calculations of the study provide information on meat losses and waste. It allows estimates of how many animal lives are hidden behind the stated quantities. The results are linked to the capacity for suffering of the individual animal species.

How the study was structured

The study is broadly based. Based on existing data, the authors calculate meat losses and waste in 158 countries, 7 regional groups and 5 stages of the supply chain.

It uses existing data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States (FAO). It contains data on food and agriculture from over 245 countries. In order to exclude distortions due to the COVID pandemic, the authors use the figures from 2019. Further data and definitions are taken from a study by Gustavsson and colleagues from 2013 and a study by Porter and colleagues from 2016. Both analyze global food losses and waste and their effects along the food chain.

Edible material that leaves the food chain at any point before it is consumed by humans is by definition loss or waste. Until the food is processed, it is referred to as loss, after that as waste.

The study is characterized by the so-called loss factors. This is based on the assumption that a certain percentage of "edible material" is lost or disposed of at each stage of the food chain.

The United Nations data collects the figures at the time of slaughter. Using the loss factors, the authors reconstruct the number of animals that died before slaughter. These include losses during rearing, deaths during transport and the number of non-human animals that were rejected at the slaughterhouse. The authors proceed in the same way for the other stages of the food supply chain.

The authors add another component to the results. They use so-called moral adjustment factors from studies by Scherer and colleagues from 2018 and 2019. Humans are assigned the maximum factor 1. In the study, this serves as a guideline for assigning animals a moral adjustment factor.

Measured by the number of neurons or brain mass, each animal species is assigned its moral factor. Pigs are assigned a value of 0.027 based on this. Based on the moral adjustment factor, they draw conclusions about the perception and capacity for suffering of the different animal species.

The results from the calculations on meat losses and waste are multiplied by the moral adjustment factors. Based on this, the authors assess how the meat losses and waste are to be categorized morally.


In 2019, the authors estimated the number of animal lives hidden behind the losses and waste of global meat production at almost 18 billion.

Of the estimated 18 billion animal lives are

● 16,8 billion chickens (93,6 percent)

● 402,3 million turkeys (2,2 percent)

● 298,8 million pigs (1,7 percent)

● 195,7 million sheep (1,1 percent)

● 188 million goats (1,1 percent)

● 74,1 million cattle (0,4 percent)

Depending on the region, the status with the highest losses within the supply chain differs. In Europe, North America, Oceania and industrialized parts of Asia, the highest losses of 26.7 percent were recorded in private households and the food service industry.

In Latin America, North Africa, West and Central Asia the loss rates are particularly high at the beginning of the supply chain at 24.9 per cent. This means that a particularly large number of non-human animals die during breeding and rearing.

By applying the moral adjustment factors, the authors reweighted the results from the calculations on meat losses and waste. Although the actual number of chickens and turkeys killed "for nothing" is the highest, the authors categorize "pig losses" as more serious. Pigs are considered to have a greater capacity for suffering than chickens and turkeys due to their cognitive abilities. This makes the "loss" more serious.

According to this categorisation, cattle, sheep and goats are less severely affected by the losses. The number of deaths is lower than for pigs, chickens and turkeys. They are also considered to have a lower moral adjustment factor.

(1) Klaura, J.; Breeman, G.; Scherer, L. (2023). Animal lives embodied in food loss and waste. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 43, 308-318.

Classification of Expertise for Animals

The study "Animal lives embodied in food loss and waste" visualizes the number of non-human animals that were killed "in vain". The broad analysis makes it possible to determine exactly where most animal lives are "wasted".

The advantages of the study

For consumers, meat often represents something abstract, decoupled from an (animal) life. The study is an important tool for making the connection and appealing to the moral conscience.

It offers approaches to motivate decision-makers and consumers to reduce food waste and thus the number of animals. This issue must become more of a political focus.

Germany and the EU have committed to the United Nations goal of halving food waste at retail and consumer level by 2030. A brief inquiry by the DIE LINKE parliamentary group in November 2023 revealed that the German government has not yet presented a strategy to achieve this goal (2).

Our criticism

The study design accepts that non-human animals are kept and killed for human consumption. It is not primarily industrial animal husbandry that is criticized, but the alleged waste. The study suggests that the suffering and death of non-human animals is increased if they are not eaten but thrown away in the trash.

Although the authors endeavor to include animal welfare and animals (morally) in their study, the approach is from an anthropocentric point of view: humans determine when and whether it is justified to keep and kill non-human animals for their consumption.

From this position, pain, suffering and death only become reprehensible when this defined purpose is not fulfilled. The moral adaptation factor serves as a further instrument to elevate oneself above non-human animals. The capacity for suffering of non-human animals is determined as a factor solely on the basis of neurons and brain mass. Humans are set as the maximum reference value. This results in a hierarchy that indicates which animal species' "death in vain" is supposedly worse and therefore more worth saving due to their capacity for suffering.

Although the study discusses possible solutions for reducing losses, the authors do not include the abolition of industrial animal husbandry in their considerations.

Our conclusion

Although the study does not fundamentally criticize animal husbandry in food production, it can underpin campaigns by animal movements. The motivation for reducing animal numbers does not initially play a role for non-human animals.

When animal numbers are reduced, fewer non-human animals suffer. The remaining individuals in food production do not benefit from this.

The hierarchy, based on the moral adaptation factor, maintains the power imbalance between non-human animals and humans. Humans decide who supposedly suffers more and is therefore more worth saving. All the animal species mentioned can perceive pain as well as positive and negative emotions.

Expertise for Animals strives for a world in which all sentient beings have the freedom to lead a self-determined life and are respected as individuals. The moral categorisation represents an approach that we therefore do not follow in the implementation of our vision.

Stay informed

Expertise for Animals is committed to using scientific knowledge for the benefit of non-human animals. We bring the latest research from the animal welfare sciences to the animal movement. In our newsletter we inform you about current contributions. You are welcome to subscribe here.

(2) German Bundestag (2023). Maßnahmen zur Reduzierung von Lebensmittelverschwendung in Deutschland. Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Ina Latendorf, Dr. Gesine Lötzsch, Christian Görke, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion DIE LINKE. (Bundestags-Drucksache 20/9533), 29.11.2023, Berlin.




In our glossary, we explain our use of language and why we do not use some words, use them differently, or use them just so. In addition, technical terms are explained and sometimes illustrated graphically or in pictures.

( Glossary )