Even as malnutrition in the form of hunger and obesity affect the health and well-being of millions of people worldwide, a significant amount of food is lost or wasted every day, in every country, and at every stage in the supply chain from the farm to the household. According to a 2011 estimate by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about one-third of food produced is lost or wasted globally.1 Beyond quantity estimates, however, less is known about the impacts on farmers, food prices, food availability, and environment of reducing food loss and waste.
On October 17, 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Science and Technology for Sustainability program organized a workshop to examine key challenges that arise in reducing food loss and waste throughout the supply chain and discussed potential ways to address these challenges.
The Science and Technology for Sustainability program has a track record of addressing issues related to food security and sustainability. In 2011, the program hosted two workshops addressing the sustainability challenges associated with food security for all. The first workshop, “Measuring
1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Global food losses and food waste: Extent, causes, and prevention. Rome, Italy: United Nations. Available at www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ags/publications/GFL_web.pdf.
Food Insecurity and Assessing the Sustainability of Global Food Systems,” examined the availability and quality of commonly used indicators for food security and malnutrition, poverty, and natural resources and agricultural productivity. The second workshop, “Exploring Sustainable Solutions for Increasing Global Food Supplies,” focused specifically on ensuring the availability of adequate food supplies to meet the needs of the world’s growing population—now expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050. In 2014, given future concerns related to global food security and the increasing demand for animal protein by developing countries, the Science and Technology for Sustainability program, in collaboration with the Division on Earth and Life Studies Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, completed a report titled Critical Role of Animal Science Research in Food Security and Sustainability. The report identifies areas of research and development, technology, and resource needs for research in the field of animal agriculture, both nationally and internationally.2
Based on positive inputs from these previous works, the Science and Technology for Sustainability program convened a committee to plan and hold a workshop focused on addressing the impacts of reducing food loss and waste on farmers, food prices, food availability, and the environment.
Major objectives of the workshop were to:
- Explore the significant cost-benefit impacts of reducing food loss and waste, including the role of changes to food prices and food availability in assessing net benefits and the distributional implications for farmer owners and operators;
- Identify research gaps and options for improving existing farming, transportation, processing, retailing, and consumption practices, taking into account the costs and benefits of reducing food loss and waste;
- Examine the role of governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector in adopting best practices to improve benefits and reduce costs; and
- Discuss opportunities for partnerships to address the issues of food loss and waste.
2 These three reports are available at https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13290/measuring-food-insecurity-and-assessing-sustainability-of-global-systems-report, https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13319/exploring-sustainable-solutions-for-increasing-global-food-supplies-report-of, and https://www.nap.edu/catalog/19000/critical-role-of-animal-science-research-in-food-ecurity-and-sustainability.
Presenters and participants came from the public sector, industry, and nongovernmental organizations in the United States and globally. The workshop began with a background of the issues presented by planning committee chair Ann Bartuska, vice president for land, water, and nature, Resources for the Future. In addition to the FAO’s estimate that about one-third of food produced is lost or wasted globally, she noted that in the United States, food loss and waste account for approximately 31 percent at the retail and consumer levels each year—a loss of about 133 billion pounds at a cost of $162 billion3—with significant impacts on food security, environmental conservation, and climate change. Yet despite the abundance of research on the scale of the issue, the impacts of reducing food loss and waste on farmers’ incomes, food prices, and the environment have not been fully investigated. Evidence from organizations, including the FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme, highlight this research gap as a key limitation. A lack of tools, data, and metrics to track and obtain hard numbers about farmers’ incomes, food availability, and influences on consumer behavior result in critical gaps in our knowledge. Behavioral economics may offer some opportunities to increase our understanding of food waste behavior. The workshop, Dr. Bartuska said, was intended as a way to shed light on the impacts of food waste in the hope that this knowledge translates into action.
After framing remarks (summarized below), the agenda was organized in two separate sessions. The first focused on understanding the impacts of the evolving food system on waste and loss. It consisted of panels on metrics and the impacts of e-commerce, new tools, policies, and practices. The second session examined the impacts of reducing food loss and waste. Researchers and people involved in on-the-ground programs discussed food availability, food prices and farm incomes, and the environment. A final discussion gave participants the opportunity to reflect on further needs and opportunities. In an effort to better connect theory to practice, the Science and Technology for Sustainability program provided workshop speakers and participants with an opportunity to have firsthand experience with innovative practices in the field. During a reception, representatives from a few organizations, including Toast Ale (see Chapter 3), ReGrained (see
3 After this workshop, a new report was released by ReFED in November 2018 stating, “U.S. consumers, businesses, and farms spend $218 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten.” ReFED. 2018. 2018 U.S. food waste investment report: Trends in private, public, and philanthropic capital. Available at https://www.refed.com/downloads/ReFED-2018-US-Food-Waste-Investment-Report.pdf.
Appendix D), and Food Recovery Network, displayed or presented their respective products and approaches to reducing food waste.
This workshop proceedings follows the organization of the workshop. The framing remarks that set the stage for the workshop round out this chapter. Chapter 2 summarizes three metrics for understanding food loss and waste in the United States and globally. New e-commerce, tools, policies, and measures—developed and used in both the public and private sectors—are summarized in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 discusses innovative solutions to increasing food availability. Chapter 5 reviews the impact of reducing food loss and waste on food prices and farm income, while Chapter 6 focuses on environmental and public health impacts. The concluding discussion is summarized in Chapter 7. The appendixes include the agenda, biographical sketches of committee members and presenters, and a list of participants (Appendixes A through C). Several presenters provided the briefs about their activities, included in Appendix D.
Defining Food Loss and Food Waste from Stakeholders’ Perspectives
There are a number of global initiatives aimed at reducing food loss and waste. However, many of these stakeholders do not subscribe to the same definition and may use different terminology. Consequently, during the workshop, some speakers explicitly provided their definitions in context of their presentations, while others did not. For instance, some made a clear distinction between food waste and food loss, with food waste indicating losses at the consumer end and food loss indicating waste during earlier stages of the food supply chain. In practice, this distinction is not always strictly defined, and some speakers used the two terms interchangeably. In order to clarify the terminology and frame presentations within their organization’s definition, Box 1-1 provides a list of definitions used by key stakeholders, including U.S. government entities.
Bojana Bajzelj, technical specialist in international food sustainability at Waste and Resources Action Programme in the United Kingdom (UK),4
provided the framing remarks that set the stage for the workshop. According to Dr. Bajzelj, food production contributes to many of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, causing approximately 60 percent of biodiversity loss, 70 percent of nutrient overloading, 60 percent of land conversion, and 30 percent of global warming (Figure 1-1). These problems are interrelated, with land conversion (i.e., when more land is cultivated for food production) notably being a driving factor for the other three (see Figure 1-1). Food waste exacerbates these issues. It is staggering to consider
that with all of these impacts from food production on resources, one-third of food is lost or thrown away, she said. Thus when she and colleagues looked at strategies to reduce greenhouse gases, they identified reducing food waste—along with increasing production efficiency and reducing meat consumption—as an opportunity. Reducing food loss and waste by half would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 30 percent through reduced land conversion, reduced fertilizer use, less deforestation, and other factors. Conversely, if business as usual continues, food production’s greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise due to increasing populations and greater per-capita consumption.5
Reducing food waste is embedded in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most directly, SDG 12 calls for responsible consumption and production. Specifically, SDG Target 12.3 aims, by 2030, to “halve per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including postharvest loss.” At the same time, reducing food loss and waste will contribute to achievement of other SDGs, she pointed out, including those related to poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), climate action (SDG 13), life below water (SDG 14), and life on land (SDG 15).6
Across the Supply Chain
Dr. Bajzelj emphasized the importance of viewing the entire supply chain when looking at food loss and waste. It begins from primary production on farms, through processing and manufacturing, market, hospitality (such as restaurants or institutions), and households (Figure 1-2). The different roles played by each stage vary greatly by country or region. For example, the overall volume of food loss and waste in the UK and Tanzania is about the same, but different points in the supply chain predominate in each place—the production level predominates in Tanzania and households do in the UK.
As reflected throughout the workshop, there is an inverted-pyramid hierarchy of what ultimately happens with unused food and beverages. The
5 Bajzelj, B., K. S. Richards, J. M. Allwood, P. Smith, J. S. Dennis, E. Curmi, and C. A. Gilligan. 2014. Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Nature Climate Change 4:924-929. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2353.
most environmentally preferable option is a reduction in the production of excess because it means less use of raw materials, energy, and other inputs. At the other extreme, and most environmentally harmful, is waste disposal in a landfill or sewer, with no energy recovery. Other options between these extremes, from the most to the least preferable options, include redistribution to other people, use as animal feed, use in anaerobic digestion or compost, and waste incineration with energy recovery.
Progress Toward Goals
Champions 12.3 is a coalition of public, private, and civil society executives working to achieve SDG Target 12.3, to halve food loss by 2030. The coalition promotes three approaches: target, measure, act. Generally, companies have made more progress than governments in all three areas. For example, about two-thirds of the coalition’s private-sector companies have their own targets or subscribe to a larger program that has a food loss and waste reduction target. Dr. Bajzelj noted that more countries need to adopt food loss and waste targets, policies, and measurements, with increased visibility at every level. Only 10 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that have set a target; it will be important to add emerging economies such as China, India, and Indonesia’s to enhance understanding of the scale of the problem. While the Group of Twenty (G20) is discussing a collective target, Dr. Bajzelj stated a preference for each country to set its own target. The most advances occur, she noted, when companies and governments set their targets themselves and have more ownership of the outcomes.
A number of countries have food loss and waste programs, although examples of real measured reductions are scarce. Between 2007 and 2012, the UK was able to achieve a 19 percent reduction from the manufacturing through the household stages through a well-funded public campaign and by working with businesses on technical changes such as better labeling
and longer shelf life of food products. The public campaign’s message that the average UK household with children throws away food worth an average £700 ($1,100) per year resonated with consumers during the economic downturn of that period. Continuing progress as the economy has improved has been a challenge.
Dr. Bajzelj indicated that it is important to look across the supply chain and analyze areas of connections and interaction, rather than looking at each step in isolation. By mapping relationships to develop the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap for the UK, it became clear that retail has a relatively low volume of food loss and waste compared to the manufacturing, hospitality and food service, and consumer sectors in UK, but it has the most power and influence through aspects such as contracts and specifications, shelf life of products, and interactions between manufacturers and consumers.
Barriers and gaps to progress include a lack of activity at the national policy level, she concluded. More countries—especially emerging economies—need to adopt food loss and waste targets, she said. Increased visibility at all levels would help, as people are often blind to the waste around them, at distant factories but also in their own households. She urged further research to understand the challenges that come with food loss and waste reduction to realize social, environmental, and economic benefits. “We need to move from a food system that is hugely negative for the environment to one that is net positive, in one generation,” Dr. Bajzelj said. Food loss and waste reduction can become a blueprint for this transition.