Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Addressing Food Loss and Waste is Critical to Sustainable Development

The post is written by Pete Pearson, World Wildlife Fund.

Sustainable human development is intertwined with the health of nature. How we feed people — our global food system — is complex and heavily dependent on our planetary resources. As the human population grows and pressures from environmental degradation and climate change increase, our food system presents both challenges and opportunities. Addressing the challenge of global food loss and waste head-on is one of those opportunities to benefit both people and the planet.

World Wildlife Fund comes to this work because agriculture and the global food system is one of the leading human-caused impacts on biodiversity loss. The 2018 Living Planet report notes that global biodiversity has declined 60 percent since 1970, with the primary cause being land conversion for agriculture — that’s conversion of forest, mangrove, grassland and other critical habitats and ecosystems. 

The consequences of food loss and waste (FLW) are profound, not just for wildlife, but people also depend on these systems for both their livelihoods and survival — adequate freshwater, forest cover, healthy soils, and clean air. WWF’s global strategy is to work collaboratively to find development pathways that enable people to thrive while right-sizing the footprint of our food system under three strategic imperatives: avoiding further habitat conversion, working towards sustainable production and consumption practices, and reducing food loss and waste – which is my focus.

Globally, as much as 40 percent of our total food production is lost or wasted, though where that loss occurs differs in different regions. In developing regions 40 percent of losses tend to occur at post-harvest and processing levels (which is referred to as ‘loss’), while in industrialized countries more than 40 percent happens at the retail and consumer levels (with much more falling into the category of ‘waste’). Nearly a third of the world’s agricultural land (an estimated 1.4 billion hectares) is used to produce food that is later lost or wasted.

Needless to say, this overall loss represents an enormous waste of human capital, energy, water, wildlife habitat, and nutrients that could be for people. It also exacerbates the climate crisis, both because of the emissions that occur across the supply chain, but also because in many countries, food waste is sent to landfills where the decomposition causes methane generation, a potent greenhouse gas.  

Rather than landfilling, edible surplus food can be redistributed to those in need and unavoidable organic waste can be composted, used in anaerobic digestion (waste-to-energy), or waste-to-animal-feed operations. If we are able to reduce demand for commodity feed (i.e. corn and soybeans) by safely utilizing food waste for animals, we could reduce conversion pressure on landscapes like the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado region of Brazil, the Northern Great Plains of North America and growing landscape conversion in Africa. A sustainable food system can only be realized if we also ensure that loss and waste is minimized across the entire value chain.

To meet these challenges, WWF’s global Food Loss and Waste strategy is aligned with Sustainable Development Target 12.3 and focuses on five key sectors— 1) farms, 2) hospitality and tourism, 3) retail grocery, 4) restaurants and food service, and 5) schools. Within each workstream, WWF has spent the last 4 years collaborating with major partners to systemically get entire sectors addressing FLW through measurement, preventing, donation and diversion from landfill.

WWF has been working to understand the drivers of loss on farms, focusing on analyzing post-harvest loss in Africa on subsistence smallholder farms, and in developed regions like the US examining specialty crop losses. Initial pilot work in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania has started to profile different post-harvest loss issues in each landscape and look at demonstration projects and potential market-based approaches that could target specific loss points. In 2018, WWF launched No Food Left Behind, which is a series analyzing the causes and potential solutions for minimizing food loss on farms in the US and looking for mechanisms to connect producers with alternative markets to help facilitate getting surplus produce to those who need it.

While the agriculture systems may differ significantly, focusing on drivers of loss and developing a methodology for quantitative and qualitative measurement helps us begin to understand how a developed country can minimize loss, and how developing nations may be able to design better food production and distribution systems and leap-frog advancements to avoid loss and waste.

The tourism and hospitality industry is another key target for the WWF strategy because it operates globally and across such a wide spectrum of geographies and often in critical conservation landscapes. These large global brands can also set an example for creating food donation and recovery programs in collaboration with their local communities on the ground. The hospitality industry is uniquely positioned to help elevate global awareness about the FLW with travelers and can also influence procurement practices that work more closely with producers to help to reduce loss on farms. WWF launched the Hotel Kitchen platform in 2017 in collaboration with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) with support from The Rockefeller Foundation. After an initial pilot in the US, the platform has expanded with pilots in nearly two dozen countries, including in Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Jamaica, Ecuador, Brazil and many more.

Building on decades of work with grocery retailers, WWF is now collaborating with partners to measure and report FLW and to also encourage their supply chain partners to also report annually. Through improved transparency and accountability, we can prioritize prevention and lower the amount of food waste generated, redistribute surplus food to those in need, and ensure unavoidable food waste is not sent to landfills.

One of the most exciting new areas of work in FLW is taking place in schools in the US. In 2019, WWF examined cafeteria plate waste in 46 US schools, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency and The Kroger Co. Foundation. The Food Waste Warrior report found that regular measurement and educational programs can both influence large scale institutional food service providers and it can also change how the next generation thinks about the impacts of food and agriculture. Our work in schools catalyzed impressions with over 15,000 students across the US and is grounded in educating youth on the connection between agriculture, biodiversity loss, and habitat conservation.

WWF’s wildlife and habitat conservation goals are deeply linked to the global development agenda, particularly food and agriculture development in regions where poverty alleviation is of critical importance. We must find development pathways that minimize agriculture’s footprint by avoiding further habitat conversion and ensuring sustainable production, consumption, and a reduction of food loss and waste. A focus on food loss and waste is perhaps our best catalyst for action within food systems.