WWF WRAP picThis month WWF and UK-based WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) released a new reportHalving Food Loss and Waste in the EU by 2030: The Major Steps Needed to Accelerate Progress.

As WWF noted, the EU has “no time to lose on food waste” – and that is a frame we all need to embrace, for neither does the rest of the world.

The report begins with a review of why food waste is a critical issue, noting that the unsustainable production and consumption of food is one of the largest environmental threats that the world faces today.  It provides a brief review of European policy initiatives on food waste and touches on past and present projects such as FUSIONS and REFRESH.  At its heart, it covers four approaches with substantial “untapped” potential to accelerate food loss and waste reduction (including policy and research gaps to build on, measurement, valorisation, and voluntary agreements), and it suggests three complementary policy interventions (common Agricultural policy, stronger regulation, and national food waste strategies).

Regarding the criticality of food waste, the statistics are numbing.  The most frequently cited figure (from FAO) is that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted annually.  Other estimates (such as the IMECHE report) suggest that global food loss and waste could be as high as 50% of annual production.  And a more recent report by Verma et al. suggests that food waste could be twice as high as FAO’s 33% estimate.

The WWF-WRAP team notes that 88 million tonnes of food are lost or wasted in the EU annually, which translates to 173 kilograms (or 381 pounds) per person (i.e. more than a pound per day).  Fully 70% of this waste emanates from households, foodservice, and retail.

For the EU, the economic cost of this waste is estimated at €143 billion, which doesn’t include the costs of collection and disposal.  The environmental costs of this waste are of course extensive in terms of wasted resources (including wasted water) as well as human labor and capital.  And the climate impact is extreme – food waste is estimated to account for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions, and as the authors note, food waste in Europe accounts for 15-16% of Europe’s total emissions impact of the entire food supply chain.

And, of course, the social impact of that waste – when viewed in terms of the lost opportunity to feed hungry people – is severe.  The authors noted that in 2017, fully 112 million people in the EU were living in households at risk of poverty while 88 million tonnes of food went to waste – a huge missed opportunity.

Further, food waste is a major driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss – which in turn increase the potential for pandemics.

While plenty of additional daunting statistics are available, the key, of course, is that global food waste of 33%, or 50%, or even more is simply unsustainable.  We must cut food waste dramatically if we are going to successfully (read as “sustainably”) feed nearly 10 billion global citizens by 2050.

We have a global goal to address this challenge – Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which calls for halving global food waste per capita at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains.  And there is little question that we must achieve it.  For example, in its recent report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050, the World Resources Institute posed five key solutions to sustainably feed the planet by 2050.  Their first solution involves reducing growth in demand for food and agricultural products, and their first recommendation to achieve that reduction is to reduce food loss and waste.  In addition, the EAT-Lancet Commission recently cited halving global food loss and waste as one of five critical strategies to achieve the necessary food system transformation to enable healthy people and a healthy planet.  Further, the Project Drawdown team recently ranked food waste reduction as the top solution to address climate change.

It’s also important to note that because food is so central and critical to our lives, reducing food waste has a strong multiplier effect – accelerating progress toward multiple other Sustainable Development Goals (i.e. reducing plastic production, reducing climate-impacting emissions, reducing water usage, reducing pressure on soils, forests, and biodiversity, conserving resources that would otherwise be consumed along the food supply chain, and more.

So making rapid progress on global food waste reduction is critical for human and planetary survival.  And yet our progress is insufficient.

In its 2019 Progress report on Target 12.3, despite positive momentum and a number of encouraging initiatives to address food loss and waste around the world, WRI noted numerous cases of insufficient progress among businesses and governments under its Target, Measure, and Act frame.  In addition, due to the lack of accurate base year data on food loss and waste at national and global levels, WRI noted that it was impossible to accurately assess progress on Target 12.3 – and called for national governments to set targets, establish base-year estimates of food loss and waste, and “take action at scale” to reduce food loss and waste.

Covid-19 led to initial increases in food loss and waste in many segments of the food supply chain, along with increased food insecurity.  And while there have been some encouraging signs of individuals placing more value on food and wasting less as a result of the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether in the post-Covid world we will quickly recapture, and accelerate, the momentum behind food waste that we seemed to have as we entered 2020 (the Decade of Action for the SDGs).

Thus the WWF-WRAP report is coming at an opportune time.

We can’t afford to fall further behind on food loss and waste reduction.

Measurement is essential for driving progress, coupled with valorization, voluntary agreements, policy and regulatory interventions, and more.

And as we focus on all of those interventions for food loss and waste reduction, let’s not lose sight of the acceleration theme.

Urgency needed.