Driven to Waste: Designing a Better Global Food System

by Pete Pearson, Global Food Loss and Waste Initiative Lead, WWF

One of the most overlooked and consistently unmeasured areas is loss and waste that never leaves the farm. © Tom Vierus / WWF-UK

How and where we farm our food may be the most critical challenge we face on this planet in this century. Agriculture currently occupies 40% of the Earth’s non-frozen land mass, consumes 70% of freshwater withdrawals, and drives 80% of deforestation. The way we produce food and feed for animals is consuming more resources than our planet can regenerate and is the primary reason for declining biodiversity. By 2050, the human population is expected to be 10 billion which will drive an anticipated increase in the demand for food production by 50%. To be in balance with our planet’s resources, we must get more from less.

One way to achieve this imperative is to reduce food loss and waste. Mention of food loss and waste may bring to your mind images of dumpsters full of edible food outside of grocery stores or even a nagging voice telling you to clean your plate for the sake of another who may not have enough to eat. But, this kind of food waste, at the retail and consumer levels, is only part of the story. One of the most overlooked and consistently unmeasured areas is loss and waste that never leaves the farm.

A new report by WWF, Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms, estimates that we are wasting over 1 billion more tonnes of food than previously calculated. In 2011, a groundbreaking FAO report estimated global food loss and waste to be around 1.3 billion tonnes. We now think that number could be closer to 2.5bn tonnes, with 1.2bn tonnes lost on farms alone. This would put the total proportion of food lost and wasted globally closer to 40%, versus the frequently referenced 33% of total food production. This would also equate to 10% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, 4% of which comes from food wasted on the farm. Additionally, 4.4m km2 of farmland, the size of Indian subcontinent, is used to produce food that never leaves the farm.

This total loss and waste of food resources represents a waste of the land, water, energy, and human labor required to produce food. Making major reductions in food loss and waste is necessary to address global environmental and social goals including halting deforestation and conversion, preventing future pandemics driven by further encroachment of agriculture into nature, feeding a growing global population, and achieving the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Waste is a function of poor design. To design a better food system that minimizes waste at all stages of the supply chain, companies and governments must set targets for reducing food loss on farms.

For companies, particularly institutional buyers and retailers, Driven to Waste highlights that farmers and buyers must adopt shared measurement and monitoring of food waste. In the US, WWF has been examining the drivers of on-farm loss through its No Food Left Behind initiative. Through data-driven research and human-centered design, we hope to help overcome some of the barriers and challenges of getting more of this food to people. For example, in collaboration with Dr. Lisa K. Johnson and The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC), WWF developed a farm loss metric[1] that provides farmers and processors the tools to measure in-field losses, losses in packinghouses and processing facilities, losses in transport, and losses in storage. Metric frameworks like this that are locally relevant are crucial to managing and preventing food waste, particularly at the farm level where data is especially challenging to capture.

At the same time, governments need to prioritize policy actions that help to measure and reduce food waste, including on-farm loss. There are currently only 11 out of 192 countries with Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that mention food loss and waste targets, which is an incredibly small percentage in comparison to the significant contribution food waste makes to global GHGs.

Withered crops are seen dried up near Beijing, China. © Global Warming Images / WWF

There are many governments that have made commitments to reducing their loss and waste, for example, in South Korea where dumping food in landfill was banned in 2005, and in 2013 the government introduced compulsory food waste recycling using special biodegradable bags. By 2023, the EU will propose legally binding targets to reduce food waste across the bloc, while in 2015, the US adopted a national goal of halving food loss and waste by 2030. To help achieve this goal, last week The Zero Food Waste Act was introduced in the US Congress, which would provide support for state, local, and Native nation governments to implement and scale up programs and infrastructure to prevent, measure, rescue, and recycle food loss and waste. This kind of national policy making and ambition must be integrated into climate planning and NDCs as well.

We have a unique opportunity through the first ever UN Food System Summit (UNFSS) and Climate Change COP26 to develop additional solutions and action plans for elevating awareness and public discussion on food systems transformation. Next week, the adoption of game-changing solutions will be set in place through a Pre-Summit of the UNFSS in Rome. There must be more than piecemeal commitments, we need to see action taken across the world, and across the supply chain. The UNEP Food Waste Index showed there is no evidence of markedly different levels of retail and consumption-level food waste between lower-middle to high-income countries, and Driven to Waste shows us farm-level losses are not just an issue in developing regions. In fact, more food per capita is lost on farms in very advanced supply chains like the US and Europe.

This new research can help increase urgency and provide additional guidance for action. Without question, food systems’ transformation is necessary to meet nature and climate goals, and one of the major priorities should be to reduce food loss and waste.

A blog on this metric is set to post on the WWF-US site next week, plan to add the hyperlink here once live.

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