Four years ago, 27-year-old Tsering Dorji of western Bhutan’s Satsam village took to organic vegetable farming. Since then, thanks to composted manure and organic pesticide, the soil health of his farm has improved, and the yield has increased manifold.
Dorji, once a subsistence farmer, now has about 60 bags of surplus food every two months to sell and earn a profit. But come the rainy season and he still loses thousands of rupees carrying his produce to markets that are miles away.
“Vegetables like radish, carrot and cucumber often break and tomatoes get squashed when I transport them. So I have to either sell them for [the deeply discounted price of ] 5-10 rupees a kg or just throw them away. This is very a hard time for me,” Dorji told IPS.
The young farmer is not alone. The world over, but especially in developing countries, farmers lose millions of dollars due to food loss. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the total bill for food loss and food waste is a whooping 940 billion dollars a year.
The scenario could, however, change significantly in coming years courtesy of a new global mechanism called the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard. Launched at the 4th Global Green Growth Forum (3GF) a two-day conference held in Copenhagen from June 6-7, this is a protocol to map the extent and the reasons for food loss and food waste across the world.
The conference, which brought together governments, investors, corporations, NGOs and research organisations, termed it a great ‘breakthrough” – one that could lead to effective control and prevention of global food loss and food waste.
“The new Food Loss and Waste Standard will reduce economic losses for the consumer and the food industry, alleviate the pressure on natural resources and contribute to realising the ambitious goals set out in the SDGs, “said Christian Jensen, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Denmark, launching the protocol.
The Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (FLW) has been developed jointly by the Consumer Goods Forum, the FAO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Specific guidelines for how the standard will instruct countries and companies to measure their food waste are still being drafted, but the protocol includes three components.
The first is that the standard includes modular definitions of food waste that change based on what an entity’s end goal is – so if a country is interested in curbing food waste to fight food insecurity, its definition of food waste will be different than a country looking to curb food waste to fight climate change.
Secondly, the standard includes diverse quantification options, which will allow a country or company with fewer financial or technical resources to obtain a general picture of their food loss and waste.
And finally, the standard is meant to be flexible enough to evolve over time, as understanding of food waste, quantification methods, and available data improves.
Sustainable Development Goal 12.3
Food loss and waste has significant economic, social, and environmental consequences. According to the FAO, a third of the food produced in the world is lost while transporting it from where it is produced to where it is eaten, even as 800 million people remain malnourished.
In short, food loss increases hunger. The lost and wasted food also consumes about one quarter of all water used by agriculture and, in terms of land use, uses cropland area the size of China, besides generating about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Target 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addresses this he global food challenge by seeking to halve per capita food waste and reduce food losses by 2030.
The FLW Protocol can help steer the movement forward, say UN officials. According to Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the protocol could not only help understand just how much food is “not making it to our mouths, but will help set a baseline for action”.
The protocol has also triggered the interest of business leaders like the world’s largest food company, Nestle. “What gets measured can be managed. At Nestle, we will definitely benefit significantly by using the standard to help us address our own food loss and waste,” said Michiel Kernkamp, Nestle Nordic Market chief.
Benefiting the poorest growers
But can the FLW protocol benefit the smallest and the poorest of the food producers in the developing countries who lack modern technology, innovation, and regular finance and are surrounded by multiple climate vulnerabilities such as flood, drought, salinity and other natural disasters?
“Yes,” says Khalid Bomba, CEO of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency.
The protocol, by identifying the pockets of food loss, can highlight the areas that need urgent intervention, he says.
“For ordinary proof producers, food loss happens for a number of reasons such as lack of innovative tools, improved seeds, market opportunity and climate change. The new protocol can be a tool to find out how much losses are happening due to each of these reasons. Once this data is collected, it can be shared with the NGOs and the business communities. Accordingly, they can decide how and where they want to intervene and what solutions they want to apply.”
Bomba, however, cautions that the protocol should not be mistaken for a solution. “This protocol in itself cannot end food loss. It is just a tool to understand the problem better and find the appropriate solution.”
Some food waste, be it measured in mass or as lost energy, is inevitable: potato peels, woody broccoli stalks, steak bones and beef gristle, egg shells, tea leaves. Other waste is avoidable but excusable, part of the quotidian inefficiency of human lives: a few last slices of stale bread, the remainder of some milk or yoghurt that is past its best-before date, a piece of fatty meat or exotic fruit rejected by a child.
But most food waste is both unnecessary and avoidable, and, over the past decade, a series of studies have given us a better appreciation of the problem’s scale as well of its considerable environmental and economic impact.
That is a welcome change. In 1999, when I was doing research at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, my most memorable impression of the institution was that hundreds of its rooms in Mussolini’s former Ministry of the Colonies were filled with thousands of people preoccupied with how to increase food output, while the study of food waste was delegated to a single man in a one-room office.
That study found that roughly a third of the food produced globally for human consumption — 1.3bn tonnes a year — is lost or wasted. Predictably, the highest wastage occurred in the EU and North America at about 100kg per person per year. Losses in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia were far lower, at 6kg-11kg.
In 2009, the UK’s first food waste assessment was produced by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Using data from 2007, it found that UK households wasted a third of all their food, with nearly 90 per cent of that waste going to landfill. It concluded that about 60 per cent of that waste was avoidable.
But an update in 2013 registered an encouraging shift: UK household food waste was found to have fallen by 15 per cent between 2007 and 2012, down from 8.3m to 7m tonnes.
A separate US study in 2012 put total food waste along the entire food chain at 40 per cent of the country’s food supply. Another inquiry found that, between 1974 and 2005, US food waste had risen by 50 per cent, with subsequent further increases.
Losses at the production level are particularly high. About 20 per cent of some vegetables, most fruits and many kinds of seafood, are wasted at this early stage. Post-harvest losses have been greatly reduced in rich economies with proper produce handling, chilling, refrigeration, protective packaging and anti-spoilage additives. But such losses remain high in the tropics.
In rich countries, losses at household level account for the largest share of food waste, not only for fruits, vegetables and seafood but also for grains due to wasted bread.
Why do rich countries waste so much food? The two most obvious reasons are that first they produce more than they need and then sell that produce so cheaply.
But another, less well-appreciated, factor is the decline of home cooking. About half of all meals in the US are now eaten outside the home, a major source of plate waste — particularly given the gargantuan restaurant portions in the US. People in rich countries tend also to be overzealous observers of best-before dates — even though you can eat that yoghurt a day after its “expiry” with impunity.
Food availability in the EU and in the US averages at about 3,500 kilocalories (kcal) a day per capita but the average food intake per person of the west’s increasingly sedentary and ageing populations is no more than 2,100 kcal. This creates a 1,400 kcal (40 per cent) waste gap.
And food is too cheap: it costs the average American family just 11 per cent of its disposable income. In the EU consumers spend 14.5 per cent of household expenditure on food, but that too is far less than in the past and than in most low-income countries.
Among affluent countries, Japan is the only notable exception in terms of wasting less food. That is due to a combination of its high dependence on food imports — at 60 per cent — and a more frugal and ageing population. Average daily food availability is now only about 2,400 kcal/capita, significantly lower than the Chinese mean, and food waste amounts to only about 20 per cent of the total supply.
The global waste of a third of our food means that 30 per cent of farmland is ploughed, planted, fertilised, irrigated and harvested without any real benefit. To make matters worse, these processes generate significant emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. If the world’s food waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases following China and the US, require 250 cubic kilometres of water per year — more than Danube’s annual discharge. Such demands also leach nitrates into groundwater and streams creating coastal dead zones, accelerating soil erosion, reducing biodiversity and promoting the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Better food literacy would help in the campaign to curb waste. So would more home cooking and less eating out, but, in the long run, there is only one effective measure, especially given the fact that food consumption is fairly price-elastic, which could substantially reduce waste in affluent countries: that is paying more for the food we buy.
Ending all food subsidies and enforcing food-related environmental safeguards would accomplish that goal — but western governments remain unwilling to pursue that course and altruistic consumers eager to buy more expensive food are few and far between.