In the last couple of years I have had had the pleasure of working with both the Future Food Institute (Italy) and the Global Footprint Network on advancing sustainability initiatives to mitigate climate change — chiefly by scaling food waste reduction efforts globally. The work of these organizations is both incredibly exciting and important. As part of my work with the Future Food Institute (FFI), I wrote the Foreword to one of the books (Scaling Sustainability and Circular Systems) produced by FFI’s innovative Food Innovation Program. On recent reflection, particularly in light of GFN’s announcement of Earth Overshoot Day, I thought it was worth posting that piece here, as more and more, it’s evident that global actions to advance the Sustainable Development Goals must be accelerated, driven by the knowledge that we only have one planet. Content from that piece is below:
“There is no Planet B.” Such a simple statement that we now hear often. And yet so profound in what it implies – both in terms of the scale of what humanity must quickly achieve to ensure that Planet A, our only world, meets our food, water, energy and environmental needs – and in terms of the consequences if we fail to do so.
Quite simply, mankind must operate within planetary boundaries, but we are currently well off the mark. The Global FootPrint Network notes that humanity’s demand for Nature’s services (our ecological footprint) is exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity (the annual supply of those services) by 1.7 planets. We are “overshooting” the Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources that the global population requires each year, and the overshoot rate is increasing. A rising middle class in the developing world will place even further strain on biocapacity, particularly as demand for animal protein increases. The trajectory of continued overshoot is unsustainable; something must give.
We are receiving many powerful signals from our planet – prolonged droughts, ravaging fires, melting glaciers, warmer temperatures, species decline, declining freshwater supplies, and plastics-filled oceans, to name a few. The Earth, our Planet A, is telling us something.
Many of these signals are the result of the global food system – arguably the most important, and most destructive, system on the planet. Our food system is vastly inefficient – losses and waste are estimated at 30-50% of global production – between one and two billion tons annually. In the developing world, losses stem from a lack of efficient transportation and storage infrastructure, along with insufficient knowledge and technology transfer. In the developed world, excessive waste of food occurs due to myriad factors. Food surrounds us, it is available everywhere, at all times. It is viewed as relatively inexpensive (i.e. cheap), and therefore easily replaceable. Disposal is easy, and deeply engrained in consumer and retail mindsets. Consumers are conditioned to seek cosmetically “perfect” produce, leading to a system that discards anything else. Date labels confuse consumers, leading to a “when in doubt, throw it out” mindset.
All of these factors stem from a culture of abundance that has evolved around food with great speed in recent decades. We are more disengaged from our food than ever, and it comes too easily to us. As a result, we no longer value it properly. That lack of valuation perpetuates a cycle of overproduction and disposal, emanating from linear, “take-make-waste” processes which do not properly account for environmental externalities.
As a result, our food system is consuming freshwater supplies, creating significant greenhouse gas emissions, depleting soils, driving deforestation, reducing biodiversity, increasing ocean acidification, and contaminating our water supplies with toxic runoff and plastics. And while we are producing enough food to feed the world, over 800 million remain hungry, billions lack proper nutrition, obesity rates are excessive, and considerable inequity persists. Ultimately, inadequate food security is a direct threat to global security.
Clearly we need to transition to a new food system, one which addresses the above challenges and can successfully feed two billion additional citizens by 2050 in a sustainable manner — without extreme environmental harm, and without broad inequity. That transition requires that we scale sustainable initiatives, and that we move from linear take-make-waste systems to regenerative circular systems, where the outputs of one system become the inputs of another. We need to bring urgency to this transition, and we will need to do so in an increasingly urban world.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide an audacious framework to improve the lives of all global citizens by 2030. Food, and by extension food waste, underpins all of them. Food waste is central and critical; by achieving a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030 in accordance with Target 12.3 we can drive huge gains in poverty and hunger reduction, improve health, increase access to clean water and affordable energy, reduce inequality, reduce pollution on land and in oceans, and more. By preventing food waste through source reduction, for example, we prevent the waste of all associated resource inputs and free those resources for other productive uses. And we minimize pollutive impacts, for by eliminating the production of wasted food, we eliminate packaging materials that otherwise largely flow to landfills or oceans. Similarly, by shifting to circular production systems where excess food is redirected to feed people and/or animals or utilized to produce energy or compost, we minimize waste and environmental externalities.
Notably, by scaling sustainability initiatives and expanding circular production processes to reduce food waste, we gain a significant multiplier effect which advances progress toward the other SDGs as well.
Achieving this transition will require many components – including continued awareness raising, education, deep culture change to properly value food, collaboration and partnerships, and especially innovation. It will also require a shift to long-term thinking, with a concern for future generations, as well as a systems focus in which we consider food, water, energy, and environmental issues together. Quite simply, we must de-normalize food waste and normalize food waste reduction behavior at global scale.
We will also need to harness the power of individuals, and the power of stories. Individuals must reconnect with their food, properly value it, observe and wrestle with food system challenges, and become change-drivers and innovators for food waste reduction and circular food systems. The students of the Global Mission Program have done just that, studying food system challenges and developing stories through observations of innovation in food hubs across the world. Their experiences are preparing them to be food system change-makers.
We are at a pivotal point with a chance, an obligation, really, to set a new course for the planet – a course which will determine the course of humanity. The linear take-make-waste model of food production and excess waste has no place in that future. We really have little choice but to embrace a circular model, and everyone should be involved in the transition, for everyone is a stakeholder in the global food system.
And because there is no Planet B.