Today, September 29, 2020, is an exciting day in the food system space.  It’s the first official observance of the “International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste” on the UN-FAO calendar – stemming from a Resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December of 2019.

For those of us who have been working on advancing global food loss and waste reduction for many years, it’s a big day – and one that provides some added optimism at a time when – let’s face it – we need all of the positives we can get. 

The International Day of Awareness recognizes that we cannot continue to experience food loss and waste totals between 30-50% of annual production.  The environmental externalities, in terms of resource depletion and climate-impacting emissions, are already far too severe.  We’re already exceeding the Earth’s ecological capacity, operating at the unsustainable level of 1.7 planets annually per the Global Footprint Network.  At the same time, as the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition report notes, global hunger numbers continue to rise, the world is not on pace to achieve zero hunger by 2030, and global hunger figures could exceed 840 million by 2030 if current trends continue (even without considering the potential serious impact from Covid-19).  So there’s a strong and obvious moral argument to reduce food loss and waste sharply.  In a nutshell, change needed.

I was fortunate to be part of a session at the UN in July 2019 advocating for this Day of Awareness, along with Sara Roversi and several members of the change-leading Future Food Institute team (including Claudia Laricchia, Chiara Cecchini, and Simona Grande), Damiano Beleffi and several Ambassadors to the UN, Maximo Torero of FAO, culinary leader Mark Brand, Antonio Parenti (Head of the European Commission Representation in Italy), and many others.

In that session I discussed the nonsensical, unsustainable nature of global food loss and waste, and cited the need for urgency and global collaboration to address it to meet the challenge of successfully feeding the planet by 2050.  Drawing on collaboration from a prior session at FAO with Jonathan Bloom (Wasted Food) and Andrew Shakman of Leanpath, I spoke of three key drivers for change – Culture change, Education, and a Prevention focus.

Regarding culture, I noted the serious disconnect in the developed world with the proper valuation of food resources while also stressing the need for a re-set from our wasteful culture of abundance to a culture of responsibility toward food.

On the education front, I echoed Bloom’s call to de-normalize food wasting behavior and normalize food waste reduction behavior – while noting the importance of engaging youth, consumers, business leaders, and government policymakers to create the next generation of change leaders.  This requires deep change in our K-12 schools.  As Bloom recently noted, “To curb wasted food in the long term, we must stop teaching kids that food is trash.  Doing the opposite – getting young people connected to their food – will yield healthier mindsets on wasted food before habits become ingrained.”

Third, I discussed the importance of moving the food waste focus up the Hierarchy to prevention – thus saving all of the resources that would have otherwise gone into the production of wasted food, avoiding all of the associated environmental costs from farm to fork to landfill, and freeing resources and human capital to address the root causes of social problems.  I also stressed the need to make food waste visible through measurement, to close organizational data gaps, and break the cycle of overproduction and excessive waste – key Leanpath tenets – while noting that we are not going to recover our way to the Target 12.3 goal (i.e. prevention of food waste is the key). 

Last, I spoke of the need for individuals to observe and internalize for change, opening our eyes to the many signals of our dysfunctional food system, harnessing them, wrestling with them, and taking action to drive positive social and environmental change. 

All of these themes remain critical, even more so, as we are now one year closer to 2030 – when Target 12.3 and the other Sustainable Development Goals come due – and we face the added challenges brought on by the pandemic.

And I would add that the need for global collaboration to advance them is more important than ever as the signals of a dysfunctional food system – and their impact on climate and global security – affect all global citizens. 

The last decade was a period of needed awareness-raising regarding the scope and scale of the global food loss and waste challenge.  Building on that momentum, 2020 ushered in a new decade which emphasized the importance of transitioning from awareness to action. 

Covid-19 has disrupted that essential transition.  And yet at the same time it reinforces the imperative of urgent action for global food loss and waste reduction – because excessive food loss and waste drives deforestation and biodiversity loss and accelerates the potential for pandemics.  

And when it comes to global food loss and waste reduction, we can’t afford to lose any momentum.  In fact, we need to address the added negatives brought on by the pandemic, such as the sharp increase in plastics and packaging accompanying dining format changes, increased waste, increased hunger, and heightened inequities.

As FAO correctly notes, “There is no room for food loss and waste in this time of crisis.  The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to rethink the way in which we produce, handle, and waste our food!”  And notably, the more progress we make in reducing food waste, the more we can advance progress toward the other Goals due to the central nature of the food system.

So the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste is coming at a very opportune time. 

While we are at a key point of inflection, It re-formalizes the progress made in raising awareness of the scope and scale of the global food waste challenge over the past decade, and it re-sets the imperative for action.

It is a wake-up call, a centering point, to re-establish the transition from awareness to action amid the continued disruption of Covid-19.

Let’s not waste it, and let’s not waste food.