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By measuring food waste, we can manage it

by Louise Fresco | Wageningen University and Research Centre
Friday, 14 October 2016 19:30 GMT

Containers with pasta are displayed at the Original Unverpackt (Original Unpacked) zero-waste grocery store in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, Sept. 16, 2014. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cutting food loss and waste down to size offers a triple win for food security, the economy and the environment

October 16 is World Food Day, a day dedicated to ensuring that everyone on the planet has enough safe, nutritious food to eat. But one way to achieve this noble goal is actually quite straightforward: Reduce the massive amounts of food loss and waste.

The next time you sit down to a meal, consider that an astounding one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted from farm to fork. In fact, a recent study found that 88 million tonnes of food was wasted in the EU-28 alone in 2012, with household food waste accounting for more than half that number.

Often overlooked, food loss and waste is a formidable global problem. It hampers efforts to feed the world. While nearly 800 million people—one in nine globally—are undernourished, over a billion tons of food never make it to a fork. It affects national and household economics.

Food loss and waste accounts for $940 billion per year in economic losses globally. In sub-Saharan Africa, where many farmers earn less than $2 a day, post-harvest losses amount to $4 billion per year. In some European countries, food waste at home and in restaurants costs more than a thousand Euro per year per household.

It also affects the environment. Food that is ultimately lost or wasted consumes about a quarter of all water used by agriculture, requires cropland area the size of China and is responsible for an estimated 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Just think, if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter—surpassed only by China and the United States.

Cutting food loss and waste down to size thus offers a rare triple win for food security, the economy and the environment. But what can be done? It starts with 1, 2, 3.

A first step is for countries and companies to set food loss and waste reduction targets. Targets drive ambition and ambition motivates action. In September 2015, nations of the world agreed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, each with a number of targets.

Among them is Target 12.3, which calls for cutting in half per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels and for reducing food losses along production and supply chains by 2030. We are all part of a coalition of leaders, called Champions 12.3, dedicated to mobilizing action, inspiring ambition and accelerating progress toward meeting this target. 

The private sector is taking steps to lead the way. The Consumer Goods Forum, which represents more than 400 of the world’s largest retailers, manufacturers, and service providers, has resolved to reduce food waste from member operations by 50 percent by 2025, five years earlier than Target 12.3.

A second step is for countries and companies to measure their food loss and waste. We’ve all heard the old adage that “what gets measured gets managed.” Since most countries and companies do not currently quantify how much or where food is being lost or wasted, it’s no surprise that the rates are so high. Without understanding the nature of the problem, it is difficult to effectively address it.

Measuring food waste in Europe is now more feasible than ever. Earlier this year, the EU multi-stakeholder initiative FUSIONS released recommendations on how to quantify food waste in Europe. These guidelines will inform the EU Commission on a methodology to measure food waste consistently across the European Union, as called for by the Commission's waste legislation proposal.

Efforts received a global boost this year with the launch of the Food Loss & Waste Protocol, the global standard for food loss and waste measurement and reporting which was developed by a partnership of UN agencies, research institutions, and private sector associations.  

A third step is for countries and companies to take action. Knowing where and how much food is being lost and wasted makes it easier to set priorities to tackle the hotspots. Exactly what needs to be done will vary between regions and stages in the food supply chain.

In developing countries, for instance, steps to prevent food losses during production, handling and storage will be critically important. In developed countries, as well as in rapidly growing urban areas just about everywhere, steps to prevent food waste at retail markets, restaurants and homes will be vital.

Set goals, measure the problem, then act. In this way we just might achieve a future where no more food goes to waste.

Dr. Louise Fresco is President of the Executive Board, Wageningen University & Research Centre. She co-wrote this blog with Peter Bakker, President, World Business Council for Sustainable Development; Paul Bulcke, Chief Executive Officer, Nestlé S.A.; Dr. Hans Hoogeveen, Ambassador / Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation; and Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever.

All authors are part of Champions 12.3, a unique coalition of leaders from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions, and civil society dedicated to inspiring ambition, mobilising action, and accelerating progress toward achieving SDG Target 12.3.