Food loss and waste refers to food and its associated inedible parts that is intended to be consumed by people, but that leaves the supply chain somewhere between being ready for harvest and being consumed. It includes food that is not eaten by consumers and is disposed of by them. By weight, approximately one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted. By calories, food loss and waste runs to an estimated 24 percent.
The direct economic losses associated with food loss and waste are estimated at $1.25 trillion. Further to this, lost and wasted food is responsible for an estimated eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions, consumes a quarter of all water used by agriculture, and wastes an area of land the size of China.
Strategies for reducing food loss and waste are central to transforming food and land use systems because of their potential impact. They could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the pressure on climate, water and land resources, and create financial savings for farmers, companies and households. They could also help to deliver nutrition-sensitive food security. For example, a 35 percent reduction in post-harvest loss of tomatoes in the Kano state of Nigeria, where 42 percent of children are Vitamin A deficient, would result in additional availability of Vitamin A for up to 1.1 million children a day.
SDG12 sets a 2030 target of “halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”. In line with the targets set out in the 2019 World Resources Report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future, this report adopts a lower level of ambition, namely a 25 percent reduction in food loss and waste by 2050. But it is conceivable that technological advances, such as technologies to extend the shelf life of perishable food and climate-smart cold storage, could enable greater reductions.
This transition will be complete when avoiding food loss and waste is the norm at every stage of food value chains in every country. To make progress at the speed and scale needed, governments, business and civil society should work together on the following priorities.
Develop ambitious national strategies
Countries need to develop national strategies with explicit targets to reduce food loss and waste. Since these strategies will be implemented from end to end of food value chains, their development will require collaboration between farmers, food processers, retailers, consumers and civil society organisations. National strategies should be linked to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of the NDCs to the Paris Agreement.
Require larger companies to report on food loss and waste
Governments can require companies above a given size to report on their food loss and waste in the same way that they require them to report annual greenhouse gas emissions. This requirement should apply particularly to the “big waste” sectors: hospitality, catering, food processing, farming and grocery retailing. Governments should help companies to measure food loss and waste by providing funding to develop open-source data tools. Companies need these to get accurate data and to value the likely return from reducing it, and thus seal the business case for the necessary investment. Companies can lead the way by being transparent about their performance, ideally measuring progress against the targets in their country’s NDCs.
Introduce more policy sticks and carrots
One policy opportunity lies in clarifying the food safety liabilities of supermarkets, restaurants and other food producers when they donate leftover food to charities. Clearer rules will encourage these businesses to contribute more. Governments can also follow France’s example and take a tougher policy line. For instance, they should charge businesses significantly more for sending food waste to landfill (partly because of the methane emissions associated with organic landfill waste). These charges could be directly linked to investment in more circular approaches to waste management, ensuring that food that is no longer fit for human consumption goes to the highest-value alternative use, either animal consumption or composting for fertiliser.
Adopt voluntary corporate targets
To drive progress on national strategies, leading businesses, especially in big waste sectors, can commit to voluntary food loss and waste targets across the value chain. One approach is a “10x20x30 campaign”. At least ten large downstream corporates commit to food loss and waste targets. They engage their own 20 largest suppliers to do the same, with a shared goal to halve loss and waste by 2030. This approach uses the concentration of large companies in these sectors to advantage, harnessing their scale and market power to drive change up the supply chain and across geographies. Tesco, the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket chain, pioneered the approach in 2017 when it encouraged 27 of its major suppliers to establish targets, measurements and actions.
Corporates can also collaborate with peers to roll out food loss initiatives across the supply chain.
Step up business innovation
As well as meeting corporate responsibilities, business has a strong commercial incentive to innovate. The opportunities arising from reducing loss and waste across the value chain are worth $255 billion a year. One company pursuing them is Royal DSM which has created Pack-Age, a product for the cheese industry that allows cheese to mature without developing a rind that has to be thrown away. Meanwhile, Protix uses food waste to feed insects for high-value protein for animal feed and currently operates in 12 countries.
Technology companies are also interested. Winnow, a UK tech start-up, helps chefs and catering businesses across 40 countries to reduce food waste by using artificial intelligence techniques to guide clients in adjusting menus and correcting portion sizes. The company claims that kitchens using Winnow typically see food waste halve in 12 months, saving its customers $33 million.
Apps too are being used. For example, OLIO, a UK-based tech start-up with over 1.2 million users, connects neighbours with one another and with local businesses so that surplus food can be shared rather than wasted. They report having shared nearly two million portions of food, saving the equivalent of five million car miles of greenhouse gas emissions.
Scale private and philanthropic investment
While there are promising examples of private finance flowing to food loss and waste ventures, the potential to scale investment is enormous. Improving efficiency in value chains in developing countries is one opportunity attracting interest. For example, ARCH Emerging Markets Partners is a private equity organisation currently raising $100 million for an east Africa cold-chain solutions fund. Through this venture, ARCH aims to help prevent fresh produce from perishing, raise rural incomes and enhance regional food security at the same time as making global exports a possibility for its storage clients.
From a commercial perspective, the venture is tapping into rapidly growing food demand and agribusiness activity in the region. Similarly, the World Bank and Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Company has recently launched a $300 million Sustainable Development Bond focused on reducing food loss and waste. Financial institutions are also using investment roundtables and competitions to boost progress on this transition. For instance, in 2018, Rabobank hosted Food Loss Challenge – Asia, an investment competition for start-up enterprises.
Private philanthropy could greatly increase its grant-making and investment impact from what is currently a very low base. Financing income-sensitive, climate-smart storage technologies could be a priority. The governments of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish AgResults, a $145 million initiative that uses pay-for-results prize competitions to encourage the private sector to invest in high-impact agricultural innovations. The $12 million AgResults Kenya On-Farm Storage Challenge Project, which ran from 2012 to 2018, reached nearly 329,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya and sold over 1 million improved storage devices, resulting in approximately 413,000 metric tonnes of improved storage capacity.
Campaign at the grass roots
Civil society and governments should leverage behavioural science to design grassroots campaigns that engage social media, religious communities and other groups in making wasting food as unacceptable as littering has become in many countries. The aim should be to stimulate a shift in social norms as large and swift as the movement against plastic pollution sparked by the Blue Planet television series.
Civil society movements can build on the distaste for waste that already exists in many cultures. Efforts to reduce food loss and waste in Japan draw on the distinctively Japanese concept of mottainai or regret for wasting the intrinsic value of a resource or object. In a number of countries, bottom-up, domestic-led campaigns by civil society organisations, such as Denmark’s Feedback and Stop Wasting Food, have raised public awareness of food loss and waste. These campaigns have recruited celebrity chefs and other figures whom the public respects and listens to as their spokespeople to encourage a mass shift in behaviour.