I’ll admit it, after a year-plus of the Covid-19 disruption, I am increasingly concerned about the loss of momentum on key sustainability issues – including food waste reduction (which in fact positively impacts so many other sustainability goals) – and I am certain that many concerned food system stakeholders are in need of inspiration at this trying time.

I continue to think that while the pandemic has made clear that we are at an inflection point for food system change, we need to go deeper and translate that larger theme to a related inflection point to inspire individual engagement and action. 

With that in mind, earlier this month my colleague Megan Elias of Boston University’s Gastronomy program and I connected with four renowned leaders in the food waste reduction movement (activist and thought leader Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, Dana Gunders, author and Executive Director at ReFED, culinary leader Jonathan Deutsch of the Drexel Food Lab and the Upcycled Food Association, and Andrew Shakman, food waste prevention innovator and co-founder of Leanpath) in a webinar focused specifically on the topic of Accelerating Food Waste Reduction.

We know that quite simply, given the environmental magnitude of the global food system, food is climate.  And given how much food we waste annually, by extension we can view food waste as inextricably linked to climate, too, along with food security and much more.

Substantially reducing global food waste represents one of the most pressing sustainability challenges facing humanity – and simultaneously one of the most addressable – with enormous opportunities or social, environmental, and financial gain. 

Focused on these thoughts, and concerned by the ongoing impact of the pandemic which has stalled momentum on food waste reduction, we felt the need to develop an impactful educational webinar centered around a critical question: How can we ignite efforts to truly make this a pivotal decade of action for global food waste reduction?

Our intent was to review some of the successes of the past decade to identify potential points of leverage, then discuss some of the stubborn barriers and inhibitors to progress, and in the process lay the foundation for a go-forward focused discussion on how to accelerate transformational change efforts for global food waste reduction. 

We all recognize that we are at a pivotal juncture for food waste reduction – incremental change is quite simply insufficient change. 

And while we entered the current decade of action with an action focus buoyed by the very effective awareness-raising and education efforts of the past ten years – much of which was driven by our panelists – it’s clear that the pandemic has set back that hard-earned positive momentum at precisely the moment when we need to accelerate food waste reduction efforts across the globe as a core component of a larger effort to construct a regenerative food system.    

In fact, Covid-19 is the ultimate signal of the need to hasten food waste reduction and rebuild a better food system.  So with an action focus in mind and looking toward 2030 and the due dates for the Sustainable Development Goals, we sought to explore key change opportunities in food waste that could be ramped up with urgency. 

The result was an incredibly rich dialog – a veritable food waste movement history lesson – with powerful insights from four leaders who have had so much impact in multiple sectors, both individually and collaboratively. 

Having “lived” the food waste movement since roughly 2008, I felt compelled to capture much of the content from this session and share it here, although I am not sure I can do it justice.  Nevertheless, I am summarizing the discussion in the interest of inspiring all food system stakeholders to draw on the expertise of our panelists to take action on food waste reduction, and to engage in the larger imperative of creating a more sustainable, regenerative, equitable food system.

Setting the Stage for Change

We began with opening remarks in which each of our panelists was able to give an overview of their work and their view of the state the food waste movement today. 

Tristram Stuart kicked off the session with an excellent “bigger picture” framing, noting that it is important for us to view food waste in the context of the larger food system given food’s extensive impact on the planet via deforestation, soil depletion, water usage, and emissions.  He poignantly noted that food is “the main cause of the mass species event that we are in the middle of,” adding that the fact that we waste one-third of annual food production is “the most obvious and absurd symptom of a fundamentally broken food system.”

And significantly, he pointed out that we should consider the vast amount of food waste occurring today as a necessary counter to the “dominant productionist paradigm” of big food organizations who are calling for sharp percentage increases in food production as the solution to feeding 10 billion citizens by 2050.  Indeed, Tristram argues that the concept of doubling global food production by 2050 is “the single biggest threat to long term food security” given that our food system is already unsustainable – and such an increase might be the precise action that would undermine the world’s ability to feed the global population while further destroying other species on Earth. 

It was a stark framing, but a powerful and necessary one.

Dana Gunders provided background on her initial investigation into the problem of food waste in the U.S., noting that she was first struck by the extent of the numbers that she was seeing, and then by the fact that no one seemed alarmed by them.  She pointed to the numbness of food sector individuals to excessive food waste, and their general acceptance of it, which led her to consider how to improve the efficiency of the food system (and which in turn led to early contacts with her fellow panelists).

Dana noted the importance of shaking people from this numbness, while also leveraging the idea that while individuals generally don’t want to waste food, many need guidance on what to do to address it in their lives —  which is where ReFED comes in, from the initial Roadmap report of 2016 to the Insights Engine platform of today. 

She also stressed the importance of getting “really clear on what our goals are” for food waste reduction, considering what steps to take first and what steps could result in significant impact.  Noting that all food system studies will have a pillar related to food waste reduction, she stressed that the real challenge lies in deciding what to do about it – the nuts and bolts of commitment, action, and accountability.

That was a perfect introduction for our remaining panelists who focus on the “what” and “how” in the culinary and prevention spaces.

Jonathan Deutsch also brought a bigger picture frame to the session through his unique culinary lens.  He noted that “it’s one thing to talk about moving nutrients and calories and truckloads of food around the system, but ultimately it has to be eaten to be enjoyed” – and as we focus on solutions across the Hierarchy we need to ensure that all citizens can access, and enjoy, nutritious food. 

Jonathan discussed his work in launching the rapidly growing “upcycled food” movement, helping food organizations review their operations to develop value-added products from existing byproducts (example, ocara from tofu processing) that would otherwise be wasted – with the ultimate goal of “keeping nutrition and flavor out of the trash can and getting it into the hands of consumers and people who need it.”

He also touched on his educational role at the Drexel Food Lab, not only in the evaluation of byproduct streams to ideate on new product development, but also on the evaluation of markets and consumer attitudes toward upcycled food and the critical role of preparing future foodservice professionals for entering careers with a normalized view of creatively maximizing the use of food products.

Continuing the focus on solutions, Andrew Shakman provided insight on his seventeen-year history of developing measurement-focused tools for the foodservice sector to reduce, and prevent, food waste in operations.  Building on Dana’s point on numbness, Andrew noted that Leanpath was founded to address his discovery that kitchens historically had not been measuring their food waste, but were essentially comfortable in working around it despite its magnitude as if it was “immovable.”  In fact, his early conversations with kitchen staff typically revealed a belief that their operations didn’t have any waste.

Referring to this challenge as “the elephant in the kitchen,” Andrew realized that it was essential to help foodservice operators get to the bottom of where their opportunities for food waste reduction existed, beginning with transparency about flows and levels of waste – and generally making food waste visible.  That led to the idea of making measurement of food waste easy, in fact, making measurement a daily practice through technology-based tools – so that operators were no longer numb to it.  That early work evolved to Leanpath’s mission of using measurement-focused tools to make food waste prevention everyday practice in the world’s kitchens.   

Andrew referenced his early comparisons to kitchens as factories, which had various tools and processes (such as Lean and Six Sigma) to increase efficiency, and which led him to develop the parallel notion that lightweight, measurement-focused tools allowing data-driven discovery could fundamentally change operating behavior – and culture – toward food waste reduction in kitchens. 

He also stressed the importance of connectivity and the inspiration that he draws from connecting foodservice operators to the food waste challenge, noting that “food connects everything” and citing Tristram’s extensive work in demonstrating how food connects us to our planet, our health, and one another. 

Building on Positives

With several excellent framing points in place, we moved to exploring some of the success points of the prior decade in the eyes of the panelists that could be leveraged to further accelerate food waste reduction.

Tristram kicked off this segment with a range of encouraging points from his experience, beginning with the uplifting comment that when he looks back on his nearly two decades of work in food waste reduction, “the difference between then and now is almost unrecognizable.” 

On the awareness front, he noted that when he began campaigning on food waste years ago, big food businesses either didn’t recognize their waste, swept it under the rug, or simply didn’t know about it – and as Andrew noted, they weren’t measuring it.  Public awareness and investment were essentially zero, and no government regulation was in place to address the problem.  Yet while it was a “non-issue” then, he noted that “now you can’t be a big company without having some strategy about food waste.”

He pointed to the global goal to halve food waste by 2030 (Target 12.3), something which was just a “moonshot idea” when he wrote about it in his 2009 book Waste, Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. 

Tristram cited the recent dramatic success in reducing food waste in homes and industry across the UK, with per capita reduction in homes of roughly one-third, noting that it’s difficult to find a mass behavior change effort on an environmental issue anywhere that has had that level of effect – and that this success, part of a broad-based approach to addressing global food waste – is “really something to celebrate.”

Significantly, he linked this success to the idea that “we are all part of a bigger organism, a bigger movement” – and that there is a deep culture within this movement revolving around a bigger journey towards food sustainability.  And he went further, building upon Andrew’s comment on the power of food to bring people together in explaining his personal ongoing practice of companionship – noting that beyond all of the environmental externalities associated with over one billion tons of annual food waste, he instead thinks of the number of friends we could all make if we found opportunities to share that food rather than discarding it.

It’s a powerful connectivity point to consider when we reflect on the collaboration that is needed to accelerate food waste reduction – why not come together over food rather than aiding isolation through waste?

And in another reference to the power of excess food, he spoke of the need to upcycle our grief and frustration over the social and environmental harm caused by excessive waste into inspirational action steps to be celebrated – such as the Feeding the 5,000 events he led in cities across the globe with Feedback.  Having participated in two of those events, I can attest to their power. 

Jonathan added to the action focus with his “mindful cooking” approach, noting that multiple perspectives come into play when excess food is directly in front of you – physical properties, safety, taste, etc. – all of which must be evaluated in terms of potential when determining what creative culinary efforts can be utilized to extend its life. 

He added that excess food is highly tangible versus abstract, thus it’s fairly easy to grasp that we can all do something about it.  And he pointed to the fact that food waste reduction is an issue that virtually everyone can support, to the movement has the benefit of a big tent filled with multiple perspectives. 

Andrew pointed to the fact that when he began his work 17 years ago, there was neither engagement nor tech investment on food waste reduction, and therefore the awareness and education work of the past decade – and the fact that food companies have awakened to the need to commit to food waste reduction – is a terrific foundational step on which to build.

Referencing ReFED’s recent work to accurately estimate the amount of food waste in the U.S., Dana added that their findings show that food waste leveled off in 2016 despite a continually rising population.  So on the plus side, she feels that we are “past peak waste” in the U.S. and sees the benefit in maintaining that flattening – and more preferably turning it downward – as the population increases. 

Barriers and Opportunities

We then turned to exploring factors that continue to hinder progress in global food loss and waste reduction, with a combined focus on creating opportunities going forward.

Tristram cited the lack of regulatory activity as a key limiter, noting that the majority of successes to date have been achieved from voluntary agreements, nudging efforts, and corporate engagement.  He emphasized that as individuals we all have the moral responsibility to act to minimize our waste, but we need regulatory support to drive far-reaching change to the food system. 

He pointed to positive examples such as the French legislation designed to reduce discards of food among retailers by strengthening donation relationships (essentially building on cultural norms that expect responsible efforts toward donations), as well as the Groceries Code Adjudicator Act – which forbade supermarkets from cancelling orders at the last minute and pushing waste (and dollar losses) on suppliers. 

He also referenced proposed legislation in the UK that would require large food companies to publish the amount of food that they waste annually.  Such transparency would, as he indicated, provide a host of benefits: 

  • Food businesses would have the incentive to compete with one another on waste reduction
  • Upcycling entrepreneurs would have line of sight into partnership opportunities
  • Policymakers would gain insight into areas requiring investment and intervention

Last, and perhaps most powerfully, Tristram returned to a key theme from his opening comments, stressing the importance of viewing food waste as a symptom of the productionist paradigm – and noting that the biggest legislative opportunity for reducing food waste and tackling the environmental crisis lies in changing agricultural subsidies. 

He poignantly noted that $700 billion of public funds are devoted to subsidizing agriculture annually, while only one percent of those funds are directed toward ecological farming – with the balance “propping up what is currently the biggest ecocidal operation going on in the world right now.”  Calling that money “catastrophically misspent,” he pointed to the opportunity in “rewiring” our regulatory approach to regenerative agricultural practices in ways that create habitat versus destroying it, replenish water supplies rather than depleting them, reduce emissions and soil erosion, and more. 

On the subject of proper incentives, Dana commented on the value of incentives to aid businesses in investing specifically in food waste prevention technologies in order to hasten the transition to a more streamlined food system.  In addition, she noted that “not only is it cheap to buy food because it is artificially subsidized, it’s cheap to throw it out.”  Accordingly, she cited the opportunity for regulatory fees that “in one swoop would incentivize moves away from throwing things out, taking that money and investing it in the prevention that we need to see.”  I could not agree more.

Andrew added that we need to address the emotional, fear-based element around food waste, and that we first need to make it a point of safe conversation – whether in business or in the home – recognizing that it’s a challenge for everyone, and that we need to better understand the cultural expectations leading to waste in order to develop solutions.  

He cited the fact that food waste is often the result of risk management decisions – we overbuy or over-merchandise in order avoid potentially running out.  And on the safety front, he challenged viewers to change the “when in doubt, throw it out” mantra to “when in doubt, address the doubt.”

Building on investment themes, he cited the opportunity in the development of financial products that tie reduction in food waste to reduced borrowing costs, thus making food waste reduction a matter of specific focus for senior executives and Board members.  Another option involves utilizing risk vehicles to remove the upfront risk of investment in food waste prevention technology to unlock scaling potential.  Regardless of the option, Andrew noted that we need to think and act big to have the needed transformational impact. 

Moving Forward with Takeaways

Harnessing audience questions to address go-forward issues, Tristram spoke of the power of connectivity to accelerate food waste reduction and positive food system change, linking back to his earlier theme of companionship.  Highlighting the massive power of the top global food companies to exploit resources and essentially “turn Nature into cash for their shareholders,” he questioned what we as individuals have on our side to combat them – and suggested that it is our deep desire to connect with one another and with Nature that has emanated from the food waste reduction movement. 

Going further, he suggested that individuals in the UK have reduced their food waste because they connected with the planet and their fellow citizens, in short, “they’ve connected their food choices with those things that they really value,” and they’ve connected their behavior with causes. 

Suggesting that we are on the precipice of a catastrophic ecological meltdown driven in large part by our food system, Tristram noted that we have to hope that “we are also on the precipice of a massive, total, global social and economic transformation – and that connectivity between us is the ingredient that will achieve that kind of change” – and we all need to be contributing to that transformation. 

Building on the transformational connectivity theme, Andrew noted that the more we can connect food waste reduction to other critical issues such as climate change and hunger, the more likely we are to make it a mainstream issue that engages policymakers.  He cited the importance of viewing food waste in conjunction with larger food system change, and reminded us that food waste is a nexus issue, and therefore by reducing food waste we can simultaneously drive positive change in other areas.

Dana reflected on just how exciting this point in time is for the food waste movement, and that we need to harness that excitement and momentum by generating real success stories, all of which will come from “nuts and bolts” reduction efforts.  She noted that transitioning to an action focus is especially critical right now, and echoing Tristram, encouraged everyone to find the particular place where they can play a role.

Jonathan concurred, noting the importance of continued action on the part of the broad coalition, and in terms of engaging consumers.  From a culinary perspective, he noted that if we can do things in a way that are cool and delicious, we’ll get a lot of things done.

That last point undoubtedly resonates with Tristram, who often proclaims that “if you want to change the world, throw a better party than those destroying it.”  See his Toast Ale site here.  And again, I couldn’t agree more.

As noted, this session was incredibly rich in content, and it was also incredibly timely. 

The central question of how we can ignite efforts to truly make this a pivotal decade of action for global food waste reduction remains a pressing concern – and it must be addressed with urgency in transformational fashion. 

We covered many important themes in this session – the need to view food waste reduction as a key part of larger food system change, the need to challenge the productionist paradigm for feeding the population in 2050, the devastating environmental impact of the food system, the need to address the “numbness” toward food waste associated with our culture of abundance, the importance of the upcycling movement, the importance of measurement to enhance the visibility of food waste in operations, mindful cooking, making food waste a safe topic of conversation, investment innovation, the role for regulation, and more.

And through it all, the importance of connectivity was clear – on multiple levels. 

We all have a role to play in advancing food waste reduction and larger food system change. 

And we’ll have much more impact – and inspiration – if we do so in connected fashion.