Mario Lubetkin is Assistant Director General at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
– Concern about food loss and waste has become an increasingly important focus of attention when discussing ways to eliminate hunger which, according to the latest FAO report, already exceeds 690 million people.
The Rome-based international organization estimates that 14 percent of food, valued at $ 400 billion a year, is lost because: it spoils; it is spilled before it becomes a final product or when it is on retail; consumers discard it; it is removed from sale as it does not meet all the quality standards; the date indicated on the product is not legible; or the item has expired.
There are several reasons why food loss occurs along the food chain for example, dairy, meat or other products can spoil during transport due to improper transport or inadequate cold storage systems.
Food losses are higher in developing countries in the south, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa at 14 percent, and South and Central Asia at 20.7 percent, while in developed countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, the average loss is lower and does not exceed 5.8 percent.
The main losses affect roots, tubers and oil crops (by 25 percent), fruits and vegetables (by 22 percent), and meat and animal products (by 12 percent.)
The Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Qu Dongyu, recalled the importance of this issue that “means wasting scarce natural resources, increasing the effects of climate change and losing the opportunity to feed a growing population in the future.” Moreover, urging the public and private sectors to promote, leverage and scale-up policies, innovation and technologies.
The Chief Economist at FAO, Máximo Torero, related this debate to the effects of COVID-19 that has revealed the vulnerability of food systems “which must be more solid and resilient.”
In this regard, the Chief Economist recalled that the United Nations designated 29 September 2020 as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, which “shows how this neuralgic issue is becoming increasingly important.”
Reducing food loss and waste can lead to important benefits, such as increasing the amount of food that is available for the most vulnerable, the reduction of greenhouse gases, the reduction in the pressure from land and water resources, as well as an increase in productivity and economic growth.
Other measures that can help reverse the current trends include: technological and operational innovation; finding solutions for post-harvest management; more adequate food packaging; more flexible regulations and standards on aesthetic requirements for fruits and vegetables; and government policies aimed at reducing food waste.
In addition, guidelines to redistribute surplus good-quality food to those in need through a food bank and the establishment of new alliances, even outside the food sector for example, with the main actors in the climate field can also contribute to positive change.
Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition
Decreasing the levels of food waste also has a direct impact on the improvement of the most negative effects of climate change.
Reducing food losses by 25 percent would offset the environmental damage that future land use for agriculture would cause. This means not destroying forests to produce more food, and avoid devastating consequences that contribute to climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
Strategies and effective interventions such as: technological innovation efforts; new regulations of food production and safety policies; and efforts to package food correctly and in a healthy way, occupy more time in the agendas of governments, parliaments, local authorities, the private sector and civil society.
One of the many examples of successful agricultural innovation used in different parts of the world, such as in Kenya and Tanzania, is solar power technology for cooling milk. This innovative solution helps to avoid the loss of milk without generating the additional emission of greenhouse gases. This same technology allows Tunisia to save three million liters of water per year.
Lawrence Haddad, the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), recalled that “nutritious food is the most perishable one, and therefore the most vulnerable to loss. Not only food is lost, but its safety and nutrition is impaired.”
According to recent reports, three billion people cannot afford healthy diets, 13 percent of adults are obese and 39 percent are overweight, while in 2017, 4.5 million deaths related to obesity were recorded worldwide.
Nutrition is another component of the same debate. The move to healthy diets around the world would help control the increase in hunger, while leading to huge savings.
This shift is estimated to, almost entirely, offset the health costs associated with unhealthy diets, which are estimated to reach $ 1.3 billion a year by 2030.
Meanwhile, the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions related to the food sector, estimated at $ 1.7 billion, could be reduced by up to three quarters.
While specific solutions will vary from country to country, and even within countries themselves, general responses consist of interventions throughout the entire food supply chain, in the food environment and in the political economy that makes up the trade, public spending and investment policies.
The 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition Report (SOFI) suggests that governments should incorporate nutrition into their approaches to agriculture to make efforts to reduce cost-increasing factors in food production, storage, transportation, distribution and marketing, for example, by reducing inefficiencies and food loss and waste; and to support small local producers to grow and sell more nutritious food and ensure their access to markets.
It also proposes giving priority to children’s nutrition as the category with the greatest needs (191 million children under the age of five have growth problems and 38 million suffer from obesity according to SOFI’s 2019 data).
Therefore, it is necessary to promote a change in behaviour through education and communication and integrate nutrition into social protection systems and investment strategies at the national level.
Communication is another component that must be included in this great effort to reduce food loss.
As stated by Geeta Sethi, Global Lead for Food Systems at the World Bank, “combating food loss and waste with accurate information and objective data at the national level represents an attempt to create a food system that benefits the health of the planet and human beings.”
“In order to know what are the policy priorities of a country and what investments and interventions are necessary accordingly, we need good data and information”, she added, recalling the technical platform recently launched by FAO for the measurement and reduction of food losses and waste (SDGs/DATA.)
China, through its president, Xi Jinping, made a strong call in August to address the issue of food waste that he described as “shameful”, “shocking” and “distressing”, which was followed closely by the country´s different communication systems, such as the main television channels and the different video platforms, announcing sanctions for those who encourage poor nutrition or disproportionate intake.
This issue has been a permanent subject of reflection for Pope Francis, who has denounced the “mechanisms of superficiality, negligence and selfishness” that underlie the culture of food waste, and has recalled that “in many places, our brothers and sisters do not have access to sufficient and healthy food, while in others, food is discarded and squandered. It is the paradox of abundance.”
“Family, schools and the media have an important role in education and awareness. No one can be left behind in the fight against this culture that is suffocating so many people, especially the poor and vulnerable people in society,” added the Catholic Pontiff.
He also highlighted that “if we wish to build a world where no one is left behind, we must create a present that radically rejects the squandering of food”, since “together, without losing time, by pooling resources and ideas, we can introduce a lifestyle that gives food the importance it deserves.”