The UN set a global goal to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030. Alarming figures show just how big of a challenge remains.
Nearly a third of all food produced in the world goes uneaten each year -- an amount that costs the global economy $940 billion and emits 8% of planet-warming greenhouse gases. At the same time, 1 in 9 people is undernourished.
A massive challenge requires massive action. A new report by WRI -- and produced with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, and in partnership with United Nations Environment, Natural Resources Defense Council, Iowa State University, The University of Maryland's Ed Snider Center, The Consortium for Innovation in Postharvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction, Wageningen University and Research, and WRAP -- lays out a Global Action Agenda to overcome the world's food loss and waste problem.
Simply put, this Global Action Agenda calls on governments, companies, farmers, consumers, and everyone in between to play their role in a three-pronged approach:
Target-Measure-Act: Set food loss and waste reduction targets, measure to identify hotspots of food loss and waste and to monitor progress over time, and take action on the hotspots.
"To do" list: Pursue a short to-do list we've identified per player in the food supply chain as "no regret" first steps toward taking action.
10 scaling interventions: Collaborate in 10 areas to ramp up deployment of Target-Measure-Act and the "to do" list.
10 Ways to Scale Action
To accelerate momentum, here are 10 interventions that can rapidly spur deployment of a Target--Measure--Act approach and actor-specific actions.
1. Develop national strategies for food loss and waste reduction.
Only a handful of nations have established strategies to reduce food loss and waste, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ethiopia. National strategies help align public policies, private sector actions, farmer practices, and consumer behavior toward a shared goal, so it's critical that more nations create strategies to halve food loss and waste.
2. Create national public-private partnerships.
Reducing food loss and waste requires action across the entire food supply chain as well as supportive public policies. No single institution can drive a 50% economy-wide reduction on its own. Public-private partnerships have an emerging track record, having launched in countries like the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment has been signed by 53 retailers, who have committed to measure and reduce food waste. If such partnerships emerged in the following countries, then 20 of the world's largest agriculture exporters would be covered, representing 45 percent of the world's population: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, China, France, India, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Thailand, and Turkey.
3. Launch a "10x20x30" supply chain initiative.
Food losses often occur during production and, especially in low-income countries, during handling and storage. Launching a private sector campaign where at least 10 of the largest food and agriculture companies commit to act and engage their 20 largest suppliers to do the same by 2030 (hence, 10x20x30) could have a big impact. This approach leverages the relative market concentration and power of a few companies to catalyze change across the supply chain and geographies. This intervention follows a model set by retail-giant Tesco, which has secured the commitment of 27 of its major suppliers to set targets, measure progress, and act.
4. Reduce smallholder losses.
If we're to halve food losses, efforts to assist smallholders with productivity and efficiency need a big boost---especially in reaching smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, regions that lose an estimated 26% of their food during harvesting, handling and storage. Approaches include training farmers in reducing losses, creating access to markets for smallholders, and improving storage solutions. For example, as part of The Rockefeller Foundation's YieldWise initiative, farmers growing tomatoes in Nigeria were trained in improved agronomic practices and access to aggregation centers, which reduced transport time to market. Following these interventions, losses were reduced by 54%.
Thailand farmer rows boat laden with fruit and vegetables to market. Flickr/WRI
5. Launch a "decade of storage solutions."
What if the 2020s became a decade of making food storage technologies ubiquitous, affordable and climate-friendly? Doing so would tackle a huge hotspot of food loss and waste in low-income countries, helping ensure more food makes it safely to market. Innovations in solar-powered coolers and "lease-to-own" financing arrangements for villages can help.
6. Shift consumer social norms.
Behavioral science tells us that increased knowledge of an issue alone does not necessarily translate into changed behavior. What successful initiatives like the UK's 'Love Food, Hate Waste' campaign have shown is that you must give people information and make it easy for them to change their behavior. That's why 'Love Food, Hate Waste' ran advertisements to raise awareness and worked with retailers to get rid of offers such as 'buy one get one free' that encourage over-buying as well as to print food storage information on food packaging, making it easier for people to waste less food. What's needed is for norms in high-income countries and cities everywhere to shift so that wasting food becomes unacceptable.
7. Go after emissions reductions.
Reducing food loss and waste is an underappreciated greenhouse gas mitigation strategy. By tackling food loss and waste from emissions-intensive beef, dairy and rice, these food sectors can reduce their impact on climate. Another strategy is for countries to add food loss and waste reduction to their national climate plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). To date, fewer than a dozen countries have included food loss and waste reduction in their NDCs.
8. Scale up financing.
Many of the promising solutions to reduce food loss and waste need an influx in financing to take off. In 2016, The Rockefeller Foundation launched the $130 million YieldWise initiative to tackle food losses in Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania, and food waste in North America and Europe. In 2019, the World Bank launched a $300 million Sustainable Development Bond focused on food loss and waste reduction. More of such investments are needed by a wider suite of financiers, ranging from grants and blended finance to venture capital and commercial investments.
9. Overcome the data deficit.
Without more and better data to understand the scale and scope of the food loss and waste challenge, we risk not being able to identify hotspots, hone reduction strategies and monitor progress. Over the next five years, the world needs a concentrated push to measure the quantity of food loss and waste in a more consistent way so that data is comparable.
10. Advance the research agenda.
Public and private research institutions have an important role, helping answer questions that will allow the world to refine strategies for reducing food loss and waste. These are questions like: Which solutions are showing the best return on investment? What technologies are most promising? What can behavioral science tell us about how to shift social norms when it comes to food waste? And what types of infrastructure do farmers in low-income countries need to reduce on-farm and near-farm losses?
There Are Enormous Benefits to Reducing Food Loss and Waste
Successfully halving food loss and waste would bring enormous benefits. It would close the gap between food needed in 2050 and food available in 2010 by more than 20 percent. It would avoid the need to convert an area the size of Argentina into agricultural land. And it would lower greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 gigatons per year by 2050, an amount more than the current energy- and industry- related emissions of Japan.
The size of the prize is huge. So, too, must be the action to seize it.
How can the world feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 while also advancing economic development, protecting and restoring forests, and stabilizing the climate?
It won’t be easy and will require major new efforts, but it can be done. Our new World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future, co-issued by the World Bank, UN Environment Programme and UN Development Programme, recommends a menu of 22 solutions served over five courses:
- Reduce growth in demand;
- Increase food production without expanding agricultural land;
- Increase fish supply;
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production; and
- Protect and restore natural ecosystems.
This menu enables the world to close the gap between the food available today and that needed by 2050, without clearing more land for farming and while reducing the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions to a level aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Some items in the menu require more farmers to implement best practices that already exist today. Others need consumers to change behavior, or governments and businesses to reform policies.
The challenge is sufficiently large, however, that many solutions will require technological innovations. Advancing them is a major theme of our report. Here are 10 important examples:
1) Plant-based meat
Globally, per gram of edible protein, beef and lamb use around 20 times the land and generate around 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based proteins. Affordable plant-based products that mimic the experience of eating beef could reduce growth in global beef consumption, while still satisfying meat-lovers. Fortunately, companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are already making headlines by creating plant-based “beef” that looks, sizzles, tastes and even bleeds like the real thing.
2) Extended shelf lives
About one-third of food is lost or wasted between the farm and the fork. Fruits and vegetables are a common food item wasted in more developed markets. One breakthrough to address this is the emergence of inexpensive methods that slow the ripening of produce. Companies are already investigating a variety of natural compounds to do so. For example, Apeel Sciences has an array of extremely thin spray-on films that inhibit bacterial growth and retain water in fruit. Others include Nanology and Bluapple, whose technologies delay decomposition.
3) Anti-gas for cows
About a third of all greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production (excluding land-use change) come from “enteric” methane released as cow burps. Several research groups and companies are working on feed compounds that suppress the formation of methane in cows’ stomachs. Dutch-based DSM has a product called 3-NOP that reduces these methane emissions by 30% in tests, and does not appear to have health or environmental side effects.
4) Compounds to keep nitrogen in the soil
About 20% of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production are related to nitrogen from fertilizer and manure on crops and pastures. The majority of these emissions come from the formation of nitrous oxide as microorganisms transfer nitrogen from one chemical form to another. Compounds that prevent these changes, including coatings on fertilizers and so-called “nitrification inhibitors,” can reduce nitrogen losses and increase the amount of nitrogen taken up by plants, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions and less water pollution from fertilizer runoff. Without a regulatory push, research into such technologies has stagnated, but great potential remains. Some new compounds have emerged in just the past year.
5) Nitrogen-absorbing crops
Another way to chip away at nitrous oxide emissions is to develop crop varieties that absorb more nitrogen and/or inhibit nitrification. Researchers have identified traits to inhibit nitrification in some varieties of all major grain crops, which others can now build upon through crop breeding.
6) Low-methane rice
Around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production come from methane-producing microorganisms in rice paddies. Researchers have identified some common rice varieties that emit less methane than others, and they’ve bred one experimental strain that reduces methane emissions by 30% in the laboratory. Despite this promise, there is no consistent effort in any country to breed and encourage the uptake of low-methane rice varieties.
7) Using CRISPR to boost yields
Two broad items on the menu for a sustainable food future involve boosting yields on existing cropland and producing more milk and meat on existing grazing land. One way to boost crop yields sustainably (without over-application of fertilizers or over-extraction of irrigation water) is to unlock traits in crop genes that increase yields. CRISPR technology, which enables more precise turning on and off of genes, has the potential to be revolutionary in this regard.
8) High-yield oil palm
Dramatic growth in demand for palm oil, an ingredient found in everything from shampoo to cookies, has been driving deforestation in Southeast Asia for decades, and now threatens forests in Africa and Latin America. One way to reduce this threat is to breed and plant oil palm trees with 2-4 times the production per hectare of conventional trees. Potential for higher-yielding oil palm trees already exists. The company PT Smart, for instance, has a variety with triple the current average yield of Indonesia’s oil palm trees. These high-yield varieties need to be used in new plantations and when farmers restock current plantations with new trees (typically done every 20 or more years).
9) Algae-based fish feeds
Another element of a sustainable food future is to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks. As the global fish catch has peaked, fish farming, or “aquaculture,” has grown to meet world fish demand. However, aquaculture can increase pressure on the small wild fish species used as feed ingredients for larger farmed fish. One technological innovation to circumvent this challenge is to create substitute feeds using algae or oilseeds that contain the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild fish-based oils. Some companies are moving to produce algae-based aquaculture feeds, and researchers have created a variety of canola that contains omega-3s.
10) Solar-powered fertilizers
The production of nitrogen-based fertilizers uses vast quantities of fossil fuels and generates significant emissions, roughly 85% of which result from the production of hydrogen to blend with nitrogen. Many have invested in solar energy to produce hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles, but similar technologies can also help produce low-carbon fertilizers. Pilot plants are under construction in Australia.
Rapidly Deploying Technology for a Sustainable Food Future
Despite their potential, none of these measures are moving forward at adequate speed and scale. Research funding for agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation is miniscule and needs to be increased, in part by making better use of the $600 billion in existing public support each year for agriculture globally.
In addition, although many of the technologies above have the potential to save money even in the near-term, many cost more than their conventional counterparts today. Increasing their uptake will require not only more public research funds, but also flexible regulations that give private companies stronger incentives to innovate. For example, in areas where technologies are underdeveloped, such as compounds that reduce enteric methane, governments could commit to requiring the use of these compounds if a product achieves a certain level of cost-effectiveness in mitigation (such as $25 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent). As another example, governments could require fertilizer companies to increasingly blend in compounds that reduce nitrogen loss.
The good news is that for virtually every type of advancement needed in the food system, small groups of scientists with limited budgets have already identified promising opportunities. Today’s plant-based burgers that taste like real beef were developed and brought to market in fewer than 10 years.
Feeding a growing world population in the face of climate change and resource constraints is an enormous challenge. The technological innovations listed above aren’t the only ones the food system needs, and of course we won’t solve the challenge through technology alone. However, just as in other sectors like energy and transport, technological innovation is an essential ingredient of a sustainable future.
- LEARN MORE: Read the full World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future