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12/03/2018 – Sustainability / Food Waste / UN General Assembly

Constructive Feedback

Over two years since the UN General Assembly adopted its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Food & Beverage Networker explores the progress made to date in ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns – particularly related to slashing food waste and loss across the world. The verdict: good progress has been made – yet more is needed by companies and countries alike to halve food waste by 2030.


According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAE), an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste every year – a loss that impacts not only national economies, but the well-being of its citizens, and not least the environment. 


Such losses and waste in the food supply chain amount to roughly US$680bn in industrialised countries and US$310bn in developing countries. Interestingly, the figures reveal that industrialised and developing countries actually dissipate more similar quantities of food across all levels of the supply chain than one might expect – 670 and 630 million tonnes, respectively. Such figures point to the fact that much waste and loss in developing countries occurs in transit to markets, or even before the produce leaves the farm gate, whereas much more food in rich economies is wasted at the value-added end of the spectrum – by supermarkets and post-retail by the consumer. 


While root crops, fruits and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food (40-50 per cent of the global quantitative food losses and waste each year), the problem is pervasive across all the major food segments, from cereals (which account for 30 per cent of the total), to oil seeds, meat and dairy (20 per cent), plus fish (35 per cent).


Regardless of what type of food is wasted, or what stage of the chain that such food is lost, it was somewhat inevitable that the emergence of such exasperating figures would sooner or later prompt a call to action from the international community. As one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – adopted on 25th September 2015 by 193 Member States and global civil society – goal 12 seeks to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”. The third target under that goal (12.3) calls for per capita global food waste to be halved at the retail and consumer levels, and for food losses to be reduced along the production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030.


More than two years down the line, to what degree has the world made progress toward achieving Target 12.3? A second annual progress report assesses the advances made by governments and companies relative to a three-step approach for reducing food loss and waste – that is, to target, measure, and act.


Food waste in the firing line

“Targets set ambition, and ambition motivates action”, announces the report. Therefore, a first step toward reducing food loss and waste is for governments and companies to set specific reduction targets aligned with SDG Target 12.3.


One landmark highlight of the past year is the Global Agri-business Alliance’s Food and Agricultural Product Loss Resolution, under which members pledge to reduce their rate of food loss by 50 per cent by 2030. The Alliance is a global coalition of leading agricultural companies, including growers, producers, primary processors, and more – and its Resolution complements the Food Waste Resolution announced by The Consumer Goods Forum back in 2015.


At a governmental level, progress has been positive: countries or regional blocs that have set specific food loss and waste reduction targets aligned with SDG Target 12.3 cover an estimated 28 per cent of the world’s population – it means we are well on the way to getting 40 per cent of the world’s population under a specific food loss and waste reduction target by the end of 2018, as per the milestone for this year. However, going forward, it will be critical for a few large countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil to adopt specific food loss and waste reduction targets.


On a corporate level, progress is even more impressive relating to targets: some 60 per cent of the world’s 50 largest food companies (by revenue) today participate in programmes that have a food loss and waste reduction target, thus already meeting the 2018 year-end target. Since most of the companies with targets are food retailers and manufacturers, important next steps include encouraging more companies in other food sectors (for example, food service and restaurants) to adopt such targets, and having large food companies engage their suppliers and customers on food loss and waste reduction.


What gets measured gets managed


Quantifying food loss and waste within borders, operations, or supply chains can help decision-makers better understand how much, where, and why food is being lost or wasted, stresses the new progress report. Such data is also the foundation for prioritising reduction strategies and for monitoring progress. 


However, to date, only a few countries with targets currently measure and report on food loss and waste within their borders – the United Kingdom being an early example. In fact, such countries comprise just seven per cent of the world’s population. 


More encouragingly, one highlight of the past year or so is that a number of major enterprises in the food sector – including Ahold Delhaize, ConAgra Brands, Danone, Kellogg Company, Nestlé, Pick n Pay, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – are not just measuring but also publicly reporting their food loss and waste inventories, thereby pioneering best practices for the private sector. Yet going forward, many more of the largest companies, as well as others, will need to complete their base year food loss and waste inventories to identify hot spots, develop effective strategies, and monitor progress.


A global call to action


Reducing food loss and waste is everyone’s responsibility, the report reminds us. Exactly what needs to be done varies around the world, and achieving SDG Target 12.3 will require big acts by big players, as well as millions of acts by everyone from farmers to consumers. 


There has been a burgeoning of initiatives in the European Union, United States, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and other countries with regard to public-private partnerships, new government policies, and consumer campaigns aimed at food loss and waste reduction. However, such efforts do not approach covering 20 per cent of the world’s population (the 2018 milestone), and even within such countries the efforts are arguably not yet sufficiently comprehensive. Going forward, more countries, regional blocs, and cities need to start implementing comprehensive food loss and waste reduction initiatives.


In the corporate world, more than 10 per cent of the world’s 50 largest food companies now have active food loss and waste (FLW) reduction programmes (the 2018 milestone). And of those taking action, half are engaged with their suppliers to reduce the latter’s FLW. Business partnerships such as The Consumer Goods Forum, Global Agri-business Alliance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Courtauld 2025, Interna-tional Food Waste Coalition, and US Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions provide a good foundation for companies to jointly embark on the journey towards halving food loss and waste, sharing best practices, motivating one another, and collaborating on solutions.


One big development is that food manufacturers and retailers have scaled up their ambitions and efforts to cut consumer food waste by standardising food date labels. In 2017, the US-based Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association announced an industry-led voluntary standard to simplify date labels, using only two endorsed phrases (one describing food quality, and one linked to food safety), yet only one phrase per package. Building on this effort, The Consumer Goods Forum has made a global call to action to promote consumer education of labelling and to standardise date labelling worldwide by the end of 2020. 


Consumers must also play their part 


Such initiatives are, of course, a reflection of the advances that have been made – especially at an industry level – to address the food waste challenge. Companies like Tesco that are leading the field see it as a good start, although opine that such efforts must become an industry-wide resolve. “Great progress has been made, but the reality is that we need many more companies, countries or cities committing to halve food waste by 2030, measuring and publishing their data, and acting on that insight to tackle food waste,” asserts Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco.


Regulation to make such reporting and actions compulsory for businesses will likely be required to engage laggards in the industry. Beyond that, there will need to be carrot or stick measures employed to alter the mindsets of consumers – particularly those in the rich-world – whose role in the food waste and loss story cannot be underestimated. For instance, each year an average consumer in Europe and North America discards 95-115kg of food, compared to those in sub-Saharan Africa, south and southeastern Asia, each of whom throw away only 6-11kg annually. One statistic succinctly hammers home such disparities in consumer wastefulness: according to the FAO, rich-world consumers fritter away almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). 


Ultimately, the new assessment of the progress made on SDG 12.3 advises that more countries, companies and communities alike should look to set targets, measure, and take action if we are to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels, and to significantly reduce food losses along the production and supply chains by 2030. If the world does this over the remaining decade or so, it will take a big step toward realising a future that achieves food security, protects the planet, and contributes to prosperity for all.

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