Do your part

The fight against food waste is far from done says Liz Goodwin

The start of a new year is always a chance to recommit to goals or begin an entirely new journey. For those in the food industry, there’s good reason to make this the year that tackling food loss and waste becomes a top priority.

It’s helpful to start with a reminder of the scope and size of the challenge. Nearly one-third of all food produced in the world goes uneaten each year, whilst at the same time one in seven people are chronically hungry. The environmental and economic consequences are just as alarming. Food loss and waste is responsible for eight per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate crisis and causes the global economy to lose nearly $1 trillion every year.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this challenge. Taking the world by surprise, the food service and hospitality sector was widely impacted. News reports shared pictures of potatoes left to rot in fields, milk being dumped, and other kinds of food waste. Supply chains have since adapted, but 2020 will go down as one of the most eye-opening years for those of us who think about how to build food systems that are sustainable from an environmental, societal, and economic perspective.

At the same time, as massive farm-level losses were grabbing national headlines, households in lockdown were adapting their own food habits to ensure they made the most of their pantries. Research out of the United Kingdom has found that families reduced the amount of food they threw out by approximately 30 per cent. That’s a massive – and very fast – shift. This is likely because many of us were unsure if there would be shortages at the grocery store, so we planned our shops and wrote shopping lists. We were wary of unnecessary trips outside, which motivated people to cook all of what they had purchased and to use their leftovers. Some changes, though, were short-lived. As lockdowns eased, household food waste has ticked up.

Good progress
Nevertheless, 2020 did see some significant developments in the fight against food loss and waste. Champions 12.3, the coalition of public- and private-sector executives who are committed to helping the world meet SDG Target 12.3, releases a report each year assessing global progress toward the 50 per cent reduction target. The group’s most recent report, released last September, noted that the UK has become the first country to pass the halfway mark to the 50 per cent target. All told, the UK has been able to reduce post-farm gate food loss and waste by an impressive 27 per cent since 2007. The report also finds important progress from companies. Tesco, Campbell’s, and Arla Foods each reduced their food loss and waste by more than 25 per cent. These achievements are clear evidence that the target is achievable for both nations and companies by 2030.

Another major advancement came from more than ten of the world’s largest retailers, who announced that they had each engaged 20 of their suppliers to commit to reducing food loss and waste in their operations by 2030. The initiative, called 10x20x30, is the world’s first effort to tackle food loss and waste throughout the supply chain. The potential reductions in waste as a result are enormous.

But just because a handful of companies and countries are making good progress does not mean the world is on track. Indeed, the world as a whole is ‘woefully behind,’ per the report.

What is needed is widespread adoption of a rather simple approach known as Target-Measure-Act.

Many more companies and countries – big and small – should set a target of reducing food loss and waste within their operations or borders by 50 per cent, in line with the UN’s global target. The next important step is to measure food loss and waste, as that helps identify hotspots and sets a benchmark against which progress can be tracked. The third step is action, which follows naturally from measurement as action can focus on the hotspots and areas with greatest potential for reduction of waste. The right policies and programs will vary by individual case, but we’ve seen evidence that even small actions are important for getting the ball rolling. Actions don’t have to be overly complicated or expensive, either.

Identify the benefits
For example, many hotels have made relatively simple changes to their buffets, but with massive results. By replacing some self-serve dishes with à la carte cooking or reducing the amount of menu items that are less popular, hotels have reduced food waste and saved significant money. Catering companies have, for example, found new ways to safely repurpose leftovers. And restaurants have seen success by engaging their staff in their food waste fighting efforts.

The benefits are multifold. The vast majority of companies we studied found a significant financial return on their investment in reducing food waste. There are also reputational benefits, since fighting food loss and waste is good for the planet and can help fight hunger. And there’s the added benefit that reducing food loss and waste is simply the right thing to do.

The world is now just nine years out from the 2030 target date. Will we achieve the global goal in time? It’s certainly doable – but not without many more players in the food system doing their part.

World Resources Institute (WRI)
Liz Goodwin is Senior Fellow and Director, Food Loss and Waste at World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI is a global research organization that spans more than 60 countries, with offices in Brazil, China, Europe, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the United States and more. Our more than 1,000 experts and staff work closely with leaders to turn big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity and human well-being.
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