October 16th – World Food Day — has become one of my favorite days on the calendar in recent years. After all, what more important challenge do we face than successfully feeding nearly ten billion global citizens by 2050? And it’s not enough to simply produce and distribute enough food to all of these citizens – we need to do so in a sustainable manner – conserving resources and minimizing environmental harm.
The history of this event is notable and warrants quick mention. World Food Day was created in 1945 to mark the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. FAO’s vision is “to achieve a world free of hunger and malnutrition, where food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all….” As the main overseer of global agriculture and food security issues, FAO focuses on five strategic objectives:
- Eliminating hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition
- Making agriculture, forestry, and fisheries more productive and sustainable
- Reducing rural poverty
- Enabling inclusive and efficient agricultural and food systems
- Increasing the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crises
These five objectives comprise a tall order, but one that is hugely important. FAO supports the principle that the right to food is a basic human right, and recognizes that successfully achieving all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals cannot happen without ending hunger, and without having “sustainable and resilient, climate-compatible agriculture and food systems” in place to feed the global population.
Significantly, FAO chooses a new theme annually to increase attention on its goals. Some of the themes from recent years have included rural poverty, sustainable food systems, biodiversity, water security, small farmers, women in agriculture, and hunger and food security, to name a few.
Last year’s theme (Change the future of migration: invest in food security and rural development) focused on the challenge of migration and its impact on food security. The massive migration patterns we are seeing underscore the point that if individuals cannot achieve basic food security needs for whatever reason – strife, inhospitable environment, etc. – they will be forced to move, and such movement en masse strains other systems, destabilizes relations between countries and threatens collaboration for larger food security goals. Mass migrations stemming from security concerns are one reason that global hunger figures, which had been on the decline for years, have been on the rise since 2014 (as noted in the 2018 report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World). More than 820 million global citizens are now chronically undernourished, or about one in nine. In a world that is so technologically advanced, and which produces enough food to feed everyone – we simply must view this condition as unacceptable – and one that must be addressed with urgency.
Last year at this time, in a talk with colleagues Hannah Semler and Kristen Miale in Portland, ME, I focused on the hunger aspect of World Food Day and the link to a key driver – the amount of food we waste across the globe annually. I spoke of the need for 1) broad and deep culture change around food waste (a cultural re-set in terms of our valuation of food), 2) educational efforts to support that mindset change (de-normalizing food waste and normalizing food waste reduction behavior), and 3) the shift to a much greater focus on food waste prevention (as opposed to recovery efforts) – because source reduction of food waste provides the greatest overall benefit, avoiding the environmental externalities of producing and transporting food that ultimately goes to waste and freeing resources (human and other) for other productive purposes, such as addressing root causes of poverty.
This year, I spent World Food Day in Berkeley (CA) at the Zero Food Waste Forum, where I gave a talk on behalf of Leanpath on the power of data and measurement to drive behavior change for food waste prevention. The Berkeley event had a food waste reduction focus driven by the legislative framework of California State Bill 1383, which is focused on reducing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP’s) – such as methane emissions from decomposing food in landfills. Specifically, the Bill calls for a 50% reduction on organic matter (i.e. food waste) to landfill by 2020, and a 75% reduction by 2025. In addition, the Bill calls for recovery (for human consumption) of 20% of edible excess food that is currently discarded by 2025.
Topics at the event included methods to finance innovative food rescue and recovery programs as well as innovative measurement tools to prevent and reduce food waste. Recognizing World Food Day, I pointed to FAO’s focus on ensuring food security for all by ending poverty (SDG1) and ending hunger (SDG2) – and I reiterated the connection between food and food waste to all of the SDGs. Food waste is a core theme; we won’t be successful in achieving the SDGs without substantially changing consumption and production patterns and cutting global food waste markedly – as called for in Target 12.3 of SDG12.
Further stressing the linkage between food waste and the SDGs, I noted that we need to work on advancing several key themes, including:
- Changing our culture to increase valuation of our food
- Engaging all stakeholders across the food supply chain in food waste reduction efforts in accordance with our 50% reduction goal by 2030
- Shifting conversation and focus from food recovery to food waste prevention over time
- Embracing measurement and data analysis for actionable change on the path to food waste prevention
- Establishing urgency – for 2030 is only 12 years away
I also cited the importance of California’s actions as a potential driver for national change, as well as several factors to help organizations establish a business case for food waste prevention. The emphasis on prevention is critical – we’re not going to recover our way to the 50% goal – we must prioritize addressing systemic issues of overproduction through prevention at scale while simultaneously engaging in efficient recovery efforts.
Notably, the Berkeley Zero Food Waste Forum was the second such event – the first having taken place four years earlier with several food waste leaders establishing the imperative for food waste reduction globally (and specifically in the U.S.) when the topic was in its infancy here. I have clear memories of that period, as I was simultaneously working with a team from Penn Vet on The Last Food Mile conference in Philadelphia, which was held about one month later and focused on food loss and waste reduction across the supply chain, as well as needed behavioral change elements.
Both events were very early stage – at the cusp of a now fast-growing food waste reduction movement in the U.S. As I reflect back on that time period, I marvel at how much progress has been made In the U.S. on food waste. We’ve enormously increased awareness of the topic, aided by committed individuals and especially by global events such as Expo Milano (2015) and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals – especially Target 12.3 and its call for 50% reduction of food waste by 2030 and reductions in food losses across the supply chain. We’ve benefited from great work by NGOs such as WRAP, the World Resources Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, and ReFED, along with pioneering efforts in business by Leanpath and recovery-focused start-ups like Imperfect and Hungry Harvest. We’ve seen an incredible global platform emphasizing the intersection of innovation, technology, and the food system in Seeds and Chips, and we’ve seen increasing numbers of companies and countries committing to the 50% goal.
There’s no question we’ve made significant progress, and despite having done little at the federal level since the stated commitment to 50% reduction by 2030 by the USDA and EPA, we’ve recently seen the U.S. government demonstrate recognition of the importance of addressing the food waste challenge with its launch of a tri-agency initiative labeled Winning by Reducing Food Waste.
Yet it’s fair to say that given the scale of global food waste, we’ve only scratched the surface to date in terms of what must be accomplished by 2030.
I continue to be struck by the interconnectedness of the SDGs – and the centrality of food (and therefore food waste) to the effort to achieve the Goals. Significant reduction in food waste has a huge multiplier effect and positively impacts the other Goals. If we prevent food waste from occurring, we save greenhouse gas emissions, we save needless consumption of resources, we save water, we save energy, we prevent plastics from flowing to the ocean, we free resources to be invested elsewhere (especially root cause issues of poverty), and more. If we fail to make significant progress on food waste reduction, we will continue to negatively impact the environment and accelerate the “overshoot” concept. We also won’t successfully feed the global population – which will continue to threaten global security.
We’re seeing plenty of reports to spur us to pay attention to the interconnectedness of food and other SDG themes – including the IPCC Climate report, World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet report, WRI’s SDG Target 12.3 on Food Loss and Waste 2018 Progress Report, the Circularity Gap report, and more.
World Food Day is a great rallying point to continue to focus global attention – and solutions – to food security issues, including hunger and food waste.
I applaud FAO’s efforts to develop annual themes to promote commitment and action to achieving global food security. The theme from 2016 (Climate is changing – Food and agriculture must too) still resonates powerfully, as does the theme from 2017 (Change the future of migration – invest in food security and rural development). And the theme for 2018 (Our Actions are our Future – Achieving a #Zero Hunger World by 2030 is possible) is clearly on target at this point in time.
To me, the key word is “possible.” We have the ability to achieve zero hunger. And we have all of the incentive needed (in terms of the challenge of feeding 9.6 billion by 2050 as well as many concerning environmental signals) to do so. We also have considerable momentum behind changing the global food system, including substantially reducing food waste.
As FAO notes, our actions are our future. That’s an appropriate focus not only for achieving SDG2 — zero hunger — but for all of the SDGs.