Photo by Champions 123/FAO/UNEP team

Seven years.  Not a long time.  In today’s hyper-fast world, it’s the blink of an eye.  And that’s how much time the world has to meet Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals – an ambitious call for halving food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030 and reducing losses along food supply chains.

Yet despite considerable efforts by many over the past decade to communicate the imperative of cutting food loss and waste, along with a very compelling business case, the world is well off-track on this critical goal – one which has the added benefit of simultaneously speeding up progress on many of the other SDGs given the nexus aspect of food.

It goes without saying that the world must substantially reduce food waste, and quickly.  We are overshooting planetary boundaries today – at a population which just hit 8 billion – while nearly one billion are hungry and three billion cannot afford a healthy diet.  At the same time, an estimated one third to one half of global food production is currently lost or wasted annually at colossal social and environmental cost – and we will need to feed another 2 billion citizens by 2050.

Clearly something must give – and since we cannot simply produce our way out of this crisis, we must optimize food resources and waste much less if we are to achieve the necessary healthy people, healthy planet balance by 2050. 

The Need for Speed

Despite increased focus on the scope and scale of the food waste challenge in recent years, the world simply isn’t moving fast enough to achieve the necessary reduction in food loss and waste.  Growing acceptance of the urgency factor has not yet translated into a commensurate level of impactful action.  And the effects of Covid-19, conflict, and climate change exacerbate the challenge of driving collaborative efforts to reduce food loss and waste globally.

In many ways, the lack of more rapid reduction is a quandary, for the triple bottom line benefits of food loss and waste reduction are extremely clear.  Cutting losses and waste from farm to fork provides numerous social and environmental benefits – mitigating hunger and freeing resources to address the root causes of poverty, reducing pressure on soils and land, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, plastics, and ocean pollution, and easing pressure on forests and biodiversity loss.  Further, business organizations and consumers achieve significant financial gains by reducing food loss and waste in their operations and homes.

The UN has correctly extolled the benefit of food loss and waste reduction and broader food system transformation to accelerate progress toward the SDGs, as evidenced by September 2021’s Food System Summit in New York (and the earlier Pre-Summit in Rome).  The second of five action tracks at the Summit focused on shifting to sustainable consumption patterns and recognized the need to eliminate wasteful patterns of food consumption – which at core comes down to properly valuing our food resources and de-normalizing actions and behaviors leading to food waste.  To that end, the Food Systems Summit spawned the Food Is Never Waste Coalition, a multi-stakeholder partnership to promote best practices, science, data and innovation to drive food loss and waste reduction across the globe.  

Further, food was noticeably on the agenda at COP27 in November; food loss and waste was the subject of several discussions while the critical linkage between the food system and climate change was apparent.

These are good signs, but to get on a transformational pathway we especially need bold commitments on food loss and waste reduction from leaders in governments and the business sector – commitments backed by aggressive, measurement-based action plans with transparent reporting.    

New Year, New Pledge

Fortunately, as we enter 2023 and move one year closer to the 2030 target date for halving global food waste, the Champions 12.3 group, FAO, and UNEP have created the #123 Pledge to reignite focus and jumpstart the needed action.

Officially launched at COP27, the #123 Pledge is a call to all food system stakeholders – governments, companies, institutions, and individuals (such as chefs and educators) – to “align at least a part of their action agenda to one of the impact areas aimed at halving food waste and reducing food losses by at least 25% by 2030.”

The #123 Pledge covers five impact areas:

  1. Integrating food loss and waste reduction into country and company climate strategies
  2. Reducing food loss and waste along supply chains
  3. Stimulating action at the national and subnational (city) levels
  4. Measuring, reporting and creating policy and regulatory frameworks for food loss and waste reduction
  5. Supporting behavior change at the consumer level through awareness, education and enabling conditions

Importantly, the Pledge is a call for new and additional commitments for food loss and waste reduction, not simply a restatement of prior commitments.  Further, new pledges must be simple and feasible, and they must address one of the five key impact areas. 

Pledges must also include a climate angle, given that the food system accounts for roughly one third of global emissions, and they must be measurable and timebound.

Further, there is an important reporting element – those making the Pledge must commit to providing annual progress reports to the Food Is Never Waste Coalition or the Champions 12.3 group – and those progress reports will contribute to the Global Stocktake (the process for assessing progress of the implementation of the Paris Agreement) to be released at COP28 in Dubai. 

To me, the #123 Pledge is exciting in several respects.  The first is the overt recognition that seven years after the announcement of Target 12.3, the world must move much more quickly to halve global food waste and reduce losses along food supply chains. 

Second, the multi-stakeholder aspect is inspirational in that anyone can make a commitment, and in my mind, everyone should – because we all can play a role in changing norms, behaviors, processes and policies that perpetuate such a wasteful food system.

Third, the reporting element contained in the Pledge adds accountability and is critical to moving individuals and organizations from commitment to action. 

Fourth, the Pledge helps underline the critical linkage between food waste and climate change, and the more we can drive home that connection, the better.

Fifth, the Pledge is an opportunity for leaders in government and companies (especially leaders in food sector organizations) to reassess priorities, challenge existing thinking, and step up authentically to prioritize food loss and waste reduction to maximize their impact.  And as consumers, I believe we should heighten our expectations of organizational leaders to do just that. 

Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director of Food Loss and Waste at WRI and a key architect of the #123 Pledge, commented that “With 2030 fast approaching, the time is past for bland aspirations, we need action.  Our intention is that the #123 Pledge will provide a focus for people and organisations to make commitments for real action that will increase momentum and drive progress.  There is no reason why we can’t all increase our efforts to reduce food loss and waste – so we can reap the many benefits, financial, environmental and social.”   

I could not agree more. 

Answering the Call

To date several organizations spanning multiple sectors have committed to the #123 Pledge, including Empauer, Entoprotech, The Global Cold Chain Alliance, The Government of the Netherlands, Greenpod Labs, The International Food Waste Coalition, Leanpath, Orbisk, Rabobank, Too Good To Go,  Wasteless, Unilever, along with key food waste reduction-focused NGOs such as WRI, WWF, and WRAP.

The pledges are varied, specific, and inspiring.  For example, Greenpod Labs has committed to preserving ten million tons of fruits and vegetables in India by 2027 through their use of natural plant extracts to slow the ripening process and extend shelf life.  Leanpath has committed to preventing an amount of food waste in foodservice operations equivalent to 50 million meals by 2025 through its measurement-focused technology solutions.  Rabobank has committed to executing a new series of its Food Waste Challenges in 2023 to help 75 foodservice organizations in the Netherlands achieve a 35% reduction in food waste. 

As an educator, I committed to developing graduate courses and blog/webinar content to raise awareness and directly educate hundreds of citizens by the end of 2025 on the scope and scale of the food waste challenge, along with the critical linkage between food waste and the SDGs and solutions/change initiatives to accelerate global food waste reduction in line with Target 12.3.  

In addition, Unilever committed to continue its focus on halving food waste in its direct operations by 2025, while Too Good To Go made a three-part commitment which included encouraging and supporting governments in ten countries to shape and improve food waste policy measures, rescuing one billion Magic Bags of surplus food from going to waste through its mobile app, and raising awareness of food waste among 250 million consumers.  

Christophe Diercxsens, Global Public Affairs Director for Too Good To Go, explained that “Making an ambitious commitment to the #123 Pledge was a no-brainer for Too Good To Go. As a social impact company that seeks to empower and inspire everybody to fight food waste together, the pledge is fully aligned with our mission, and we would encourage actors in the food system to join in order to accelerate action to reduce food waste.”

Andrew Shakman, CEO and co-founder of Leanpath, echoed that theme, noting that there is “direct alignment between Leanpath’s everyday measurement-focused work to prevent food waste in foodservice and the concept of the #123 Pledge – and the idea of signing on to such an external commitment to support the acceleration of food waste reduction triggered an immediate yes.”  He added that the Pledge is an excellent opportunity for all of us to challenge our own limiting beliefs to lead greater and faster impact on food waste reduction. 

Embracing Opportunity, Sparking Action

In sum, the current level of food loss and waste in our global food system is clearly unsustainable, and while the world has a goal to address it via Target 12.3, we need much more urgent and effective action toward that goal. 

At a time of the year in which organizations look forward and set annual operating plans, one in which we all make personal resolutions to be better in myriad ways, the #123 Pledge can be a spark to accelerate the needed global action on food loss and waste reduction at multiple levels. 

The creators of the #123 Pledge have made it easy for leaders from governments, companies and institutions, along with chefs and educators, to make a specific, measurable, and timebound commitment aligned with one of five impact areas to halve food waste and cut food losses by 25% by 2030.  A link to the #123 Pledge Submission Form is here.

As food system stakeholders with a vested interest in cutting food loss and waste to reduce climate-impacting emissions, improve food security, and accelerate progress toward multiple Sustainable Development Goals, the #123 Pledge provides us all with an opportunity to influence the pace of global progress toward Target 12.3.

With just 7 years remaining until 2030, let’s not miss it.