The quiet crisis of food waste
Wednesday, March 09, 2016
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
Picture a field ready for harvest. Any field in the world, it doesn’t matter: an acre of cassava in Nigeria, a rice paddy in Indonesia, some amber waves of grain in the United States. Now harvest this imaginary field, and toss one third of it into the trash.
Welcome to the global food supply chain of 2016, a vast system in quiet crisis which requires an emergency intervention to nourish people, preserve our planet and protect profits.
By 2050, the Earth’s population will have swelled to an estimated 9.7 billion people. According to Rockefeller Foundation research, all the food that never makes it from farm to table could feed all of the 1.2 billion hungry or undernourished people on the planet today.
While hunger is the most visible part of this quiet global crisis, it is certainly not the only impact. Indeed, the ramifications of global food loss and waste hit home throughout the entire food supply chain in every country in the world and reverberate in corporate bottom lines. Every year, food loss and waste costs the global economy nearly $1 trillion, which includes $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries. That’s more than the combined 2015 profits of the Fortune 500.
It has dangerous implications for our planet, as well. Limited land and water resources are squandered. In the U.S., a quarter of the world's increasingly scarce freshwater is wasted on unconsumed food. Harmful greenhouse gas emissions increase. In fact, if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China.
This isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made, particularly in the industrialized world. The adoption of new warehousing, shipping and logistics technologies all have reduced spoilage from farm to market. Retailers have installed misters and improved refrigeration, helping extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Food saving technologies like vacuum bags and services that deliver pre-measured portions of food are reducing waste in the home.
Despite advances like these, there remains no comprehensive approach to address all three heads of this hydra — people, planet and profits — simultaneously, including the now-familiar problem of post-consumer waste in industrialized nations, as well as the massive, hidden post-harvest loss issue in the developing world.
That’s why the Rockefeller Foundation has launched YieldWise, a $130 million initiative that will work with private, public and nonprofit participants across the entire global food supply chain to prove that we can slash global food loss and waste by half. We will meet this ambitious goal by attacking the problem at every point of entry, from farm to table to trash: tackling everything from how smallholder farmers grow and store their crops, to how corporations account for food loss and waste, to consumer tolerance for throwing away food.
The initiative is starting work in Sub-Saharan Africa, where some researches say up to 50% of certain crops are lost to inefficient harvesting, storage and processing. Some of the solutions to this problem are simple, like airtight storage cocoons and polyethylene storage bags. Others are more complex, but equally achievable, such as mobile processing units — and the consistent electricity needed to power them — that extend the short life of foods like cassava.
These interventions have the potential to transform family incomes and, in due course, local and regional economies. And partnerships between multinational corporations and smallholder farmers enable these farmers to quickly sell their crops to a guaranteed buyer, saving trips to frequently oversaturated markets.
In industrialized countries — where 40% of food waste happens at the retail and consumer level — targeted investments can have a major impact. The average American family of four wastes almost $1,500 a year throwing away food in their kitchen. This includes the humble broccoli, which sees its stems and leaves thrown out, despite the fact that these parts are almost equally nutritious and delicious as the florets. You just need to know how to prepare them.
While some change will happen at the household level, restaurants, college campuses and supermarkets can take innovative and creative measures to reduce food waste. For example, organizations and companies like the Food Recovery Network, The Campus Kitchens Project and Aramark challenge college and university campuses to reduce waste and recycle more. Through an innovative platform called Zero Percent, restaurants with surplus food can alert local volunteers to take donations to homeless shelters and food pantries. In Canada, supermarket chain Loblaw sells misshapen apples and potatoes at up to a 30% discount through a campaign to encourage customers to buy imperfect-looking, but perfectly edible, food.
The public sector has a critical role to play in this solution as well. Nearly 200 national governments — including the Obama administration — have already pledged to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030, and 117 cities have signed a pact to develop and implement strategies that improve their local food systems.
No business would ever excuse the loss of one-third of its inventory — and when it comes to the world’s food supply, neither can we. Together, these efforts will help ensure that the earth’s bounty continues to feed people all over the world.
Judith Rodin is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Sam Kass is founder of Trove and served as an assistant chef and senior policy advisor for nutrition policy for The White House.