Year-end is a natural time to reflect on major events of the year, what we have learned, and what we intend to do with those learnings.
As noted in recent posts, we’ve been fortunate to receive a slew of high-quality reports this year addressing many of the global challenges underpinning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), perhaps none more important than the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which provides clear guidance on the imperative for immediate actions to limit the increase in global temperature. In short, we have about 12 years to reverse course.
In addition, the WRI Food team built upon prior work in releasing a synthesis report (Creating a Sustainable Food Future) in which they provide a menu of solutions to address the challenge of feeding nearly 10 billion global citizens by 2050. The authors point to the projected increase in population over the next 30 years, coupled with rising incomes in the developing world, as creating a path for a 50% increase in demand for food and a 70% increase in demand for animal-based food products. Such demand will place huge strain on the environment, and on the Earth’s already-constrained resources.
As the WRI team notes, feeding the world by 2050 isn’t a matter of simply producing more food, it’s a matter of doing so in a way that minimizes environmental harm to the planet — especially in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also protecting forests, soils, species, water, oceans, and more. It also involves reducing inequities and minimizing hunger. Simply put, it’s the grandest of balancing acts.
The authors note that successfully feeding the global population will require closing three main gaps — the food gap, the land gap, and the GHG-mitigation gap — and they lay out a plan to do so. That plan involves 22 solutions for achieving a sustainable food future, grouped into five major categories:
- Reducing growth in demand for food and agricultural products
- Increasing food production without expanding agricultural land
- Exploiting reduced demand on agricultural land to protect and restore forests
- Increasing fish supply through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture, and
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production
With respect to food, the authors note that the more the food gap can be closed through demand-side reduction measures, the smaller will be the challenge of increasing food production. Thus, reducing global food loss and waste is the first of four key measures cited to close the food gap. The authors note that current loss and waste between farm and fork (roughly 1/3 of production) results in about $1 trillion in economic losses, contributes to food insecurity in the developing world, wastes agricultural land and resources, and generates roughly 1/4 of all agricultural GHGs. Reducing annual food loss and waste would reduce the food calorie gap by 12%, the land use gap by 27%, and the GHG mitigation gap by 27%. Serious gains, to be sure. The authors recommend that governments and food organizations target 50% reduction of food loss and waste in compliance with Target 12.3 of the SDGs, adopt a measurement focus, and act and innovate to achieve deep reductions. Such recommendations are sound, and to the extent that stakeholders use them to prioritize upfront prevention of food waste — as opposed to downstream recovery — even better.
Also released this month was a report by DEFRA detailing the UK’s new resources and waste strategy, entitled Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy For England. This report points to the value of the Earth’s natural capital — the materials that we all consume on a daily basis — and recognizes that our continued and increasing consumption of them is placing ever greater strain on the planet. It also cites the negative impact of the waste that we continue to generate through all of our linear systems, and properly seeks to turn the balance “back in favor of the natural world” by moving to a more circular economy.
The UK government’s goal — to “maximize the value of the resources we use, minimize the waste we create, cut emissions and help create a cleaner, greener, healthier planet” — is admirable and warrants support.
The report devotes an entire chapter to the need to reduce food waste and cites a number of planned actions, including:
- Establishing a £15 million pilot fund to expand food recovery operations
- Consulting to drive annual reporting of food surplus and waste by businesses
- Consulting with regulators to drive food waste targets and surplus food redistribution for businesses
- Publishing a new food surplus and waste hierarchy
- Increasing awareness by appointing a new Food Surplus and Waste Champion, and
- Supporting cross-sector collaboration through the Courtauld 2025 agreement
All of these points are good, but noticeably absent is a stronger focus on upfront food waste prevention. As such, the report exemplifies traditional thinking on food waste — we tend to focus attention on the more tangible aspects of food recovery or composting and less on prevention (or source reduction, the top and most impactful level of the Food Recovery Hierarchy). That’s something we must change going forward. Prevention of food waste avoids all of the resource inputs, including human capital, that go into the production of that food. It also avoids all of the environmental externalities associated with that production, as well as the additional environmental harm occurring when that food is hauled away to landfills. Moreover, the resources that are freed up by avoiding the production of food that ultimately goes to waste can be devoted to addressing root cause issues of hunger.
Prevention maximizes benefits throughout the food supply chain — it’s the ultimate complement to circularity.
As the IPCC report notes regarding warming — “Mitigation options consistent with 1.5°C pathways are associated with multiple synergies and tradeoffs across the Sustainable Development Goals.” In other words, if we limit global warming, we will benefit other major goals, too, like protecting the oceans. Similarly, if we maximize food waste prevention efforts, we will maximize positive benefit throughout the food system — conserving scarce resources, limiting land and soils degradation, reducing air and water pollution, preserving species, reducing plastics in oceans, and more. And we’ll free up resources to focus on root causes of poverty rather than emphasizing back-end hunger relief efforts through recovery. In short, we’ll achieve a multiplier effect benefiting all of the other SDGs.
The IPCC report notes that we must make substantial progress on reducing GHG emissions in the next 12 years to have a realistic chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C versus the much more harmful 2°C. Doing so will require new thinking, and a rapid shift to circular systems which minimize the harmful environmental impacts of waste generated from linear systems — particularly the global food system. And specific to food, it will also require a shift in attention from recovery to prevention, because we are not going to recover our way to 50% reduction in accordance with Target 12.3. Prevention is the key to long-term reduction, and prevention will drive attainment of Target 12.3.
To be clear, I’m all for efficient food recovery efforts in the near term. We should absolutely recover and divert excess food resources that would otherwise go to waste, and we should put them to the best use possible according to the Food Recovery Hierarchy. And we should look to make those efforts as efficient as possible in the near term. But our focus should be on actively transitioning to a focus on food waste prevention, reducing the systemic overproduction of the current global food system that is causing so much financial, environmental, and social harm, and conserving additional resources to recover and redirect food that did not need to be produced in the first place.
Upfront prevention of food waste is the key to achieving Target 12.3. Prevention is the key to reduction. It is critical to closing the food gap noted in the WRI report, and it is critical to conserving natural capital (as called for in the DEFRA report) and limiting global warming (as called for in the IPCC report).
With the 2030 goals in mind, let’s aggressively shift the conversation and focus on food waste. Let’s plan for prevention.