Safeguarding the planet can be as easy as 1,2,3

By João Campari, Global Leader of the Food Practice, WWF

Our world is under greater pressure than at any point in history. There are many daunting tasks ahead of us. We need to feed a growing population, bring climate change under control, and halt and reverse biodiversity loss. Failure to address all three of these demands could have catastrophic social, environmental and economic consequences — yet many steps designed to address one issue could actually make another worse: for instance, converting forests to croplands may help meet demand for food, but will remove natural habitats and release more carbon into the atmosphere, ultimately making many areas unsuitable for farming and damaging the long-term ability of the land to produce food.

Simply put, saving our planet is a formidable challenge. It requires an integrated approach and a good understanding of the trade-offs involved. It is a big, complicated and, frankly, scary topic but one that we can’t shy away from. Successfully addressing these areas promises great rewards for our health and prosperity. There are many complex solutions that can be applied but, in some ways, sustainability is as easy as one, two, three. As in Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 — to halve food waste and reduce loss by 2030. On the face of it, this is another intimidating goal, but in actual fact, it’s probably the single target within the SDGs which most demonstrates how small changes, that can be easy to implement, can make a huge difference.

To quantify the goal, around a third of all food produced is never eaten. It’s either thrown away or lost somewhere along the value chain from farm to distributor. This represents a huge waste of resources — food production uses 34% of all land, 69% of all water, has resulted in 89% of all fish being over-fished or fished to capacity, is the lead cause of deforestation and creates as much as 30% of greenhouse emissions.

While we are producing 50% more food than we eat, there are still 815 million people worldwide going hungry –we are actually producing enough food to feed everyone, but our wasteful behaviour means food isn’t available in the right place, at the right price and at the right time. If we produced only what we need, we could instantly make significant contributions to protecting ecosystem services, conserving wildlife and safeguarding climate — for instance, saving the 25% of water used in agriculture which goes towards food that winds up wasted or lost.

The issue of food waste doesn’t end with inefficient production and supply. It costs the global economy $940 billion per year, an astonishing cost to all citizens and loss of earnings for farmers. This is compounded by the climate impact — rotting food emits tonnes of methane and carbon. If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest climate polluter, behind only the US and China. It’s a truly global problem — in every region, at least 15% of all total food available is lost or wasted. In North America and Oceania it reaches 42%. There and in other developed regions like Europe and industralised Asia, the problem lies at the consumption end of the food system, while in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South East Asia it is at the production end. It’s clear we must make food loss and waste socially and politically unacceptable and ensure all those involved in food production transform their working practices.

Given the scale of the issue, it’s natural to assume the solutions are complex and difficult to implement. There are many important steps to take, such as legislative change to make food donation mandatory for consumer-facing businesses (provided the right public health safeguards are in place), the introduction of advanced cold-chain technology, and creating widespread behaviour change, but there are also many simple steps that can be taken at all stages of food production and consumption which will have real impact.

At the consumer end of the process, we can all take more responsibility to reduce waste at home — planning our groceries carefully, cooking manageable portion sizes and freezing leftovers. While individuals can and must take action, we are going to effect real change by altering the way in which food is delivered to consumers, removing waste as an option. That means transforming how hotels, restaurants, grocers and business or school canteens operate.

One of the biggest issues right now is that many of these businesses see food waste as a cost-of-business and don’t even realise that it’s a solvable problem. The first step in transformation is simply beginning to measure the amount and type of food waste generated, to understand the scale of the problem and the waste which can be avoided. This allows chefs, restaurant managers and buyers to modify purchasing and service. After that, small actions like placing food at buffets in smaller dishes or replenishing them less often, and providing smaller plates, encourages guests to take less each time, while there’s still the option to return for another serving if desired. In the case of grocers, they often discard much produce as it doesn’t meet superficial aesthetic demands but some clever marketing and packaging can restore their appeal.

We need to fight to remove all food waste, including diverting inedible parts like peels from landfill (where it has the biggest climate impacts) and into composting. In a nutshell, if donating edible food is an option it must be done, while other waste should be composted or converted into animal feed to get most value from the calories produced.

On the loss side, several producers have identified post-harvest loss resulting from immediately fixable issues. One producer was losing rice on the farm simply because their bags weren’t strong enough and constantly split. Providing more sturdy bags fixed the problem overnight. A baking company found that it was wasting an inordinate amount of seeds because the hopper which sprayed them onto breads was wider than the conveyor belt passing below. Changing one piece of equipment at a small cost delivered return on investment, in terms of savings, in less than a week.

Some of the approaches to tackling food loss and waste demonstrate that we don’t have to completely reinvent the food system to reverse the negative impacts we are having on our planet. So many of the changes required to achieve SDG12.3 are modular, pragmatic, scaleable and easy to implement — as long as actors are willing!

Addressing food loss and waste will have massive implications for our climate, planet and food security. It’s an accessible way for producers, retailers, governments and consumers alike to begin to have real impact on our planet’s future and begin to consider more complex requirements in terms of land-use, energy choices and conservation. Small changes will have a direct impact but also open the door to other advancements in the SDGs. So while sustainable development is without doubt a complex issue and formidable challenge, it can also be as easy as one, two, three.