There’s something about Earth Day that inspires us as individuals to do something – to take some specific, tangible action – to demonstrate our concern for the planet.
If we can do something collaborative, working with a group to have even greater impact, so much the better. And if we can take such a collaborative effort to scale – that’s the ultimate win.
This year I was pleased to collaborate with the Future Food Institute, who came up with an innovative and audacious plan to do just that.
With their “Food For Earth Day” event on April 22, the Future Food Institute team organized “the world’s largest live lesson” on feeding the future. It’s a brilliant concept, as the health of our planet – and humanity – is so deeply tied to the global food system. After all, UN FAO sources note that Agriculture accounts for nearly 70% of global water usage annually, while the food production and distribution process accounts for roughly 30% of global energy consumption. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that the entire food production system accounts for as much as 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Further, over 800 million global citizens (and rising) are hungry while 30-50% of global food production is lost or wasted annually – yet forecasts suggest we will need to increase production by 50% to meet the needs of nearly 10 billion citizens by 2050.
We know all of this, of course, but we need continual reinforcement of such concepts to prompt action for broad and deep change toward a more regenerative, sustainable food system – and fortunately we are getting it. The landmark EAT-Lancet Commission report pointedly notes that “Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” The report calls for an urgent, radical transformation of the global food system and sets forth global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. In addition, the World Resources Institute has produced several reports outlining the need for change to ensure a sustainable future, including the 2018 Synthesis report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future – A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.
We’re coming very quickly to 2030, the target date for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious and necessary frame to address the most pressing global challenges facing humanity, including poverty, hunger, health, climate, clean water, clean energy, ocean and land pollution, waste and resource depletion, and more. It’s important to note that because food is so central and critical to our lives, it is central to all of the Goals. And by extension, so is food waste.
The 2030 Goals are a step along the road to what is arguably humanity’s ultimate challenge – successfully feeding nearly 10 billion global citizens by 2050 in a way that ensures the health of the planet for the future.
Along with access to clean water, food is the ultimate driver of global security. In short, we cannot stress the connection between the health of planet, people, and food enough.
The Future Food Institute team continues to lead the charge for exponential food system change, focusing on education, innovation, and collaboration – and the Earth Day event (in concert with FAO’s elearning academy) was another great example of their ability to unite leaders from around the world to discuss the importance of advancing a regenerative food system.
Starting in China, and traveling virtually to Japan, India, Antarctica, Russia, Africa, Italy, New York, Brazil, and several other countries to eventually end in in Hawaii, the team produced a 24-hour, around-the-world slate of sessions that covered all seven continents – including a team from Concordia Station at the South Pole discussing their climate research work. Thought leaders from multiple sectors of the food system, such as FAO, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), UNIDO, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), the World Bank, ZERI (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives), as well as students, researchers and food innovators – all brought a unique perspective to the topic of creating a more sustainable, regenerative food system.
Topics throughout this marathon event included the Chinese vision of sustainable development through food systems, balancing tradition and innovation, empowering communities to establish food sovereignty, measuring progress towards sustainable food and agriculture, empowerment of farmers, growing healthier communities, creating a values-based food system, the role of chefs in preserving the planet, and of course, food loss and waste issues.
Regarding the latter, I was very pleased to join Damiano Beleffi, Ambassador of the Republic of San Marino to the United Nations, in segment 16 on the theme of “Food Loss and Waste: Raising Awareness for a Better World.” It was great to reconnect with Damiano, as we had both previously participated in a special Future Food-led event at the UN in New York championing the addition of a specific day recognizing global food loss and waste to the UN calendar.
I began my talk with a focus on the disruption to the food system, and our larger world, caused by Covid-19, the surreal nature of our immediate environment, and the need to look ahead to rebuild better. We need to recognize the power of the signal in the pandemic – we are in a disrupted, disconnected, broken environment because we are pushing the planet beyond its boundaries. As noted above, our food system consumes massive amounts of water, energy, and resource inputs while contributing extensively to global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it pressures scarce land resources and drives deforestation and biodiversity loss, which in turn increase the potential for pandemics like Covid-19. And we exacerbate these costs through annual loss and waste of up to 50% of global food production.
It is essential that we recognize that linkage: Food waste drives climate change and biodiversity loss, which in turn enables pandemics and threatens food security and global security.
With that focus, it is clear that we must focus on understanding the drivers of global food loss and waste – not only from a moral standpoint, but from a risk standpoint as well.
In the developed world we have created a cycle of overproduction and overconsumption of food, fueled by easy disposal. We don’t place proper value on our food resources, and therefore we waste far too much of it, and the Earth is sending us critical signals in the form of rising global temperature, rising sea levels, droughts, fires, plastic pollution, species decline, ocean acidification, and now, pandemics.
It is imperative that we recognize the gravity of these signals, and that we take action to address them.
I pointed out a key concern of mine as we grapple with Covid-19 and the retrenchment that it is causing in business operations. We have made considerable progress on raising awareness on the subject of food loss and waste in the last decade. Indeed, while the last decade has achieved a certain level of momentum through awareness-raising and education, the next ten years are about urgency and action. We are now officially in the Decade of Action, with less than 10 years remaining to achieve Target 12.3 and the other Global Goals. And Covid-19 has disrupted us – forcing business operations to cut back to survive a sudden sharp downturn.
Yet we need to remember that going into the crisis we were already behind on food waste reduction and climate goals. We are not on pace to cut food waste in half by 2030, and we have a tremendous amount of work to do on all of the Goals. We must identify and close measurement gaps, and we cannot allow this period of retrenchment to wipe out years of gains in advancing sustainability initiatives in organizations, especially around food.
We cannot emerge from the crisis by discarding sustainability initiatives; now more than ever we must focus on creating shared societal value in business operations. In the food sector, we must elevate our focus on preventing food waste from occurring in the first place, while shifting norms from a cycle of overproduction and excessive waste to one of responsible production and maximum resource utilization.
Can Covid-19 create our needed “values moment” where we shift our valuation of food resources? And will we be able to avoid reverting to a wasteful, fragile global food system where food waste is a $1.6 trillion problem?
We’re seeing renewed connectedness between people and food as a result of the pandemic. We’re seeing wonderful, newfound respect and appreciation for food system workers who play a role in getting food to all of us every day. And we’re seeing companies leverage their assets and employees to help protect, house, and feed people.
These are great examples of caring and of collaboration in crisis, and we should build on them.
Can we build on this moment, and achieve the new level of global collaboration that we need to redesign the global food system? To substantially cut food loss and waste, increase equity and resilience, and advance progress toward all the other SDGs?
I believe that we must think that way, and the Future Food Institute has provided a wonderful launch point with its recent 24-hour, around-the-world Earth Day event.
Covid-19 had exposed the fragility of our tightly-wound, just-in-time, wasteful global food system. It is a major signal of the need for urgent change to create a regenerative, sustainable food system.
While in the early stages of the Covid-19 lockdown we’ve all been understandably fixated on the disruption and disconnection fostered by the virus.
But now let’s revert back to our prior statement: Food waste drives climate change and biodiversity loss, which in turn enables pandemics and threatens food security and global security.
When we do that, we realize that is it essential that we now begin to reimagine and rebuild a new regenerative food system for the “new normal” — because there is no going back to the “old normal.”