World Food Day is celebrated annually on the 16 of October to honour the founding of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1945. The internationally recognised day promotes global awareness and action for those who suffer from hunger, and for the need to ensure healthy diets for all.
This year, the event comes hot on the heels of the World Food Programme’s Nobel Peace Prize win, reflecting not only the sterling work that the initiative undertakes to address global hunger but also the fact that the world is waking up to the pressing need to fix a broken food system.
The coronavirus pandemic brought the fragility of the world’s food supplies to the fore, with millions going hungry. At the same time, the climate crisis continues to wreak havoc on food security, the UN chief António Guterres noted.
In a video message to mark the occasion today, Guterres highlighted the importance of food systems and their impact on economies, environment and health, but warned that they are “one of the main reasons we are failing to stay within our planet’s ecological boundaries”.
These factors have converged to raise the profile of one issue that must be addressed if we are to build a more sustainable food system: food waste.
Waste not want not
Globally, one third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted. In Europe alone, 88m tonnes food waste is generated at an economic cost of €143bn. The moral cost is deeper still: every second day 36 million people in the region can’t afford quality meal.
As with areas such as climate action, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have galvanised efforts to combat food waste. As part of its SGDs, the UN aims to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030.
The UN Secretary-General is also convening a Food Systems Summit next year to raise global awareness and spur actions to rethink food systems, so that they can play a more positive role in ending hunger, reducing diet-related disease, and help in the fight against climate change.
At a regional policy level, food waste – and food systems more broadly – are certainly issues that have come to the fore, with a direction of travel for policy positions included in the Circular Economy Package, EU waste legislation and the Farm-to-Fork strategy.
The coronavirus effect
There is evidence that consumers are also growing their awareness of food security and waste, not least in light of the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about shortages.
According to UK government agency WRAP, for instance, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has sparked a new-found consumer awareness about the importance of food security with 84% agreeing that food waste is an important national issue and 90% believing we all have a responsibility to minimise the food we throw away.
Aoife Allen, head of food at Hubbub UK, believes that COVID-19 has ushered in a discussion around the value of food. “It did blow open a space that was hard to access before around discussing the value of food,” she said at a live-streamed Ideas Festival 2020 organised by OPP. “Huge numbers of people said they were getting children involved in cooking, were growing their own food,” she noted.
Allen is hopeful that this shift has some sticking power. “We’ve seen some research since in July and a couple of weeks ago, that suggests people are still in that frame of mind… We are programmed to make sure we don’t run out of food as humans and when they saw shortages it gave them a once in a generation opportunity to think about your food,” she observed.
Indeed, Allen reported that Hubbub – a UK organisation campaigning on food waste – has seen demand for information on how to make food ‘go further’ spike in the past six months. “The much more negative side of things is we have seen an increase in food insecurity as a result of the economic depression,” she added.
Sustainability consultancy Bureau Veritas believes that awareness of food waste is only going to grow as the pandemic continues to put the issue of food security firmly up the public agenda.
“There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has brought the worldwide issue of food wastage more widely into the public domain. Indeed, following the initial urge to stockpile supermarket goods, it would seem that it has made consumers much more aware of the importance of food security and the role they can play in lessening wastage,” Tracy Wain, Food Safety Technical Manager at Bureau Veritas commented.
Consumer by-in to food waste is vital if the problem is to be tackled because the majority of food in developed markets like Europe is wasted in the home. European households generate more than half of the total food waste in the EU, 47 million tonnes.
This is not to let other players in the chain off the hook. Businesses and policymakers also have an important role to play and Wain suggested that public opinion will compel them to develop more robust food waste strategies.
“In the commercial world [COVID-19 has] coerced a shift to a much more robust, leaner approach to the supply chain in order to negate the issue of surplus stock and food wastage.
“With food wastage clearly under the magnifying glass it has never been a greater time for food businesses to invest in a holistic, robust food wastage strategy so that they can demonstrate and validate their efforts to reduce food waste.”
Allen, who works with some of the UK’s largest retailers at Hubbub, stressed that the decisions made at a retail level can have a direct impact on how much food people are wasting at home.
“Retailers have a responsibility to make sure they don’t oversell through Buy One Get One Free [promotions], confusing date labels, selling carrots in a 2kg bag to a family two or three. These are all practices that are embedded in a lot of retailers. They may not result in food waste at the retail level, but they could result in waste afterwards.”
A whole-system approach is needed
Christophe Diercxsens, public affairs manager at Too Good To Go – a business that has developed an app to aid food redistribution – stressed that a whole chain approach is essential. “Only through increased cooperation between the various actors in the supply chain can we bring down food waste levels,” he suggested.
“The responsibility is shared. It is businesses and policy makers responsibility to lead by example and to make clear that wasting food, like we have been, is no longer acceptable in today’s society. It is the responsibility on the consumer side to take action to chance the way they consume food. To not over buy, to learn to cook again with scraps and waste and everything that is in your fridge.”
Different parts of the chain – policy, manufacturing and retail, and consumer – face distinct roadblocks and different levers need to be pulled to facilitate change, Diercxsens continued.
“Each level of the supply chain presents different blockers. At consumption level, it is a mentality shift. At business and policy level, it is about increased ambition. At business level we see retailers, manufacturers, voluntarily measure food waste and try to tackle it. This is very good, but not enough. Why? Because not enough types of food are being measured, not enough businesses are committing to voluntarily put those measures in place. So good first steps but [there is] much more to do.”
Likewise more work is needed at a policy level, the food waste expert insisted. “There are many countries in Europe where it is still cheaper for businesses to throw food away than to donate it for human consumption. That is crazy – it is cheaper to destroy food than to give it away.”
Diercxsens said that the EU the Farm-to-Fork represents an ‘enormous opportunity’ for policy to support a zero waste future through the introduction of initiatives like binding waste reduction targets and clearer expiration dates. However, he added, ‘there are a lot of missed opportunities as well’.