WRI Champions sessionThis week saw many notable climate-focused events in New York as part of Climate Week NYC.  That’s encouraging, for as The New York Times recently noted, “Climate change was seen as a threat for the future.  Increasingly, it is a reality of the present.”

One particularly important event was the Champions 12.3 session focused on advancing the agenda for reducing global food loss and waste.  Here, leaders from the World Resources Institute (WRI), WRAP, and several Champions reviewed the state of food loss and waste efforts across the globe, discussed progress to date toward achieving Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (which calls for a 50% reduction in global food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030 and a reduction in food losses along production and supply chains), and reviewed opportunities to accelerate progress over the next 12 years (including release of a Food Waste Reduction Roadmap which lays out three-year milestones under the Target-Measure-Act framework).  The Roadmap is significant, detailing increasing participation levels for measurement and action required by both governments (i.e. countries) and the 50 largest food service companies between now and 2030.

Momentum behind food loss and waste reduction is strong, and the energy level at the event was high – as all of the participants understand the importance of achieving Target 12.3.  And the link to climate change is clear.  As Geeta Sethi of The World Bank eloquently noted, “the two degrees world cannot be met without addressing the food waste challenge.”  Some highlights from the day’s discussion follow:

Dave Lewis of Tesco, the Champions 12.3 chairman, kicked off the event with an overview of the Target-Measure-Act framework while citing the importance of leveraging the expertise and passion of the leaders in the room.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, cited the linkage between food waste reduction and several of the SDGs, and the need for urgent action.  He noted that measurement is at the heart of the Champions’ waste reduction strategy, but that effective measurement efforts are insufficient to date.  Accordingly, the EU is finalizing a common food waste measurement methodology for member states to utilize beginning in 2020.

Andriukaitis also pointed to ongoing work on other sub-topics such as date labeling and food donation, and noted that changing behavior to drive food waste prevention at the consumer level is essential.  In other words, we must rapidly transition to an environment in which consumers properly value food.  He closed with the comment that “food waste is a result of a dysfunctional food system” and that the Champions can organize a “network of networks” to address it.

Liz Goodwin, Director of Food Loss and Waste at WRI, pointed to some solid progress to date regarding the Roadmap – noting that nearly two-thirds of the world’s 50 largest food companies have set food loss and waste reduction targets, and increasingly they are being joined by hotels and restaurants.  Further, more than a quarter of those large food companies are measuring food loss and waste in their operations, and several are going further and working with their suppliers as well.

With the groundwork set, Goodwin noted that we now need more companies to report on food loss and waste publicly and transparently, and we need them to engage their suppliers to push measurement and reporting through their food supply chains.  Pushing food waste reduction efforts through the supply chains of large food retailers obviously has immense positive potential – from environmental, social, and financial perspectives.  She also noted that we need more countries to quantify their base levels of food loss and waste, additional investment in technology to scale deployment of food loss and waste reduction efforts (and more public-private partnerships to facilitate such efforts), and importantly, a change in social norms such that wasting food is no longer considered “normal” behavior.  That last point is, of course, a frequently covered topic on this blog, as evidenced here.

Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission, cited the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation of 2014 – which included a call to end hunger in Africa by 2025 along with a 50% reduction in post-harvest losses in the same time frame.  She noted the need for technology and innovation, improved market infrastructure, institutional capacity building, and increased financing and investment to achieve these goals along with a robust “continental” strategy.  The African Union Commission is working with both the Rockefeller Foundation on tools to reduce post-harvest loss, and with FAO to ensure that they are properly measuring to show progress toward their goal.  Craig Hanson of WRI reinforced the significance of the “continental” goal for Africa, noting that if we fail in Africa we fail in the overall Target 12.3 goal.

Marcus Gover of WRAP connected food waste to Earth Overshoot Day (which in 2018 was the earliest ever), and noted that “if we can’t fix food, we can’t fix climate change.”   Gower pointed to WRAP’s development of the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap in conjunction with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) to allow food sector businesses to consistently measure and report on food waste and take action to reduce it in their operations.  He also pointed to Atlas, a newly-developed on-line tool by WRAP and WRI to track food loss and waste data across food types, sectors, and geographies.  As noted on WRAP’s site, the idea is to provide insights to any user on the scale and location of food loss and waste across the globe, assist users in identifying supply chain opportunities to reduce food loss and waste, and simplify measurement and tracking of food loss and waste in a consistent manner to benchmark performance and identify key areas for intervention.  Gower called for all companies to enter their food loss and waste data into Atlas to accelerate progress toward Target 12.3.

Panel discussions followed with a focus on ways to accelerate action to reduce food losses and the role of corporations in motivating food waste reduction.  In both sessions, the need for action steps was clear.  Regarding food losses, the opportunity for technology transfer, market development, partnerships, and financing (a “cocktail of interventions”) emerged as being essential for developing countries.  Kevin Fay of the Global Food Cold Chain Council noted the importance of establishing a cold chain baseline for developing countries and gathering better data to identify impact areas, while Shenggen Fan of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) emphasized the importance of helping smallholders with basic technology additions while stressing that a solutions-focus for developing countries should include energy and transport.

On the food waste side, Michael La Cour discussed IKEA’s efforts to reduce food waste – noting that 184 stores are now involved in the effort and that a 35% reduction in food waste has been achieved to date.  Referencing the behavioral challenge, La Cour noted that the logic behind food waste reduction is easy, but the emotional connection is different.  He pointed out that there is a “consistent need” to keep food waste on the agenda in organizations – it’s “not a one-time shot.”  He also cited the importance of engaging all food service employees in the organization — and making them ambassadors for food waste reduction — in order to ensure the durability of the effort.  Significantly, he noted that 70% of his IKEA co-workers stated that work on food waste reduction in the workplace led to changes in their behavior at home.  That’s a great example of the role that companies can play in advancing awareness (and educational efforts) on food waste reduction to change the degree to which consumers value food.

New Champion Selina Juul, founder of Denmark’s Stop Wasting Food movement, pointed to the value in first emphasizing the financial savings from food waste reduction in order to drive behavior change among consumers, and afterwards following with the environmental and social benefits.  And in terms of maximizing impact, she also noted that “what’s important is not just to recover food, but to prevent food waste.”  Well said.

The event concluded with a reference to the significant progress that has been made in recent years on food loss and waste reduction, along with clear recognition of the very sizeable road ahead.  For example, Ambassador Hans Hoogeveen expressed the importance of positively impacting smallholder farms in Africa, as well as the need for significant additional government action from many countries.  President Gilbert Houngbo of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) noted that the private sector remains reluctant to invest in food loss and waste reduction, and that we need to improve their comfort level while assisting innovators to make their projects more “bankable.”  He stressed that “we need to scale up, we’re just walking.”  Chef Sam Kass noted the opportunity to connect with people over wasted food, leveraging the emotional connection around food and working to change cultural norms around food waste behavior.  Kass stressed the need to keep the conversation positively focused (i.e. “for” rather than “against”) to improve chances for success.

Dave Lewis summed up the event by noting that the target for food waste reduction is clear, and that we’ve begun the process of engaging companies and governments – but there is much more to do.  He challenged all of us as individuals to promote what we know is right, and emphasized that regarding future generations, what we do now will speak much more loudly than what we say.

Lewis is correct.  We have indeed made nice progress on global food loss and waste reduction.  We have a clear goal illuminated in Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.  We have many outstanding, passionate thought leaders – like the Champions 12.3 group and others in business and in the non-profit sector – working to advance progress toward the 50% reduction goal.  We have a broadly applicable framework (Target, Measure, Act), and we have a Roadmap to achieve the goal.  And we have the added benefit of the multiplier effect of food waste reduction – because reducing food waste (and better yet, preventing it in the first place through source reduction) has a positive impact on all of the other SDGs.  There is no question that we need more urgency – 2030 is a scant 12 years away – and an increasingly urbanized global population of nearly ten billion looms just twenty years later.

The opportunities for companies and governments in food waste reduction are great, and the costs of inaction are even greater.  We all need to support the work of the Champions 12.3 coalition — and we all need to be drivers of food waste reduction.  Our responsibility to future generations demands it – and that would make us all champions.  And as Dave Lewis notes, there is no doubt that our actions will speak louder than our words.