COVID-19 has exposed a great number of ugly truths that are more easily made invisible under cheerier circumstances: some people have no home to quarantine inside, others face domestic violence at home, some have no public safety nets to speak of and others are more threatened by hunger than an ominous virus. A society of hunger is unacceptable. But this becomes even more unacceptable when one third of our global food supply is lost or wasted every single year.
As hoarding mentality and panic buying spike, market stalls and grocery aisles are being cleared out, leaving barren shelves where food staples were once stocked. Laid-off workers and daily-wage earners in informal economies struggle to feed themselves, while temporary foreign workers are flown in to fill labor gaps across agricultural fields. From farm to fork, COVID-19 puts a spotlight on the troubling issues of our broken global food system – not least of which is the scandal of food loss and waste.
This scandal looks very different in distinct corners of the world. While there are fairly uniform proportional production losses across the continents, there are massive divergences in post-harvest losses and consumption waste, largely demarcated along wealth lines.
Not surprisingly, the Global North is the largest culprit of food waste at the consumption stage, including the prosperous economies of East and Southeast Asia. Whereas across the developing world, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, consumption waste is basically unheard-of, and most of the damage comes from post-harvest losses.
None of these impacts tread lightly on the earth and none of them are negligible. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 1.4 billion hectares of land, or 28 percent of the planet’s agricultural area, is used to produce food that is lost or wasted. And consumer food waste in high-income countries is on par with Sub-Saharan Africa’s total net food production. These food losses and waste amount to up to one tenth of the planet’s carbon footprint.
As millions go hungry while food excess is wasted, the social injustices of hunger point to broken global food systems characterized not only by flawed systems of production, but also by unequal distribution. These dynamics create destructive feedback loops, in which carbon is released from the deforestation of land, which is used to produce food that never feeds mouths but instead ends up in landfills, and emits even more potent greenhouse gases, such as methane.
There are no quick fixes. But there are approaches that point our food systems in a more equitable and efficient direction.
Across developing regions, supply chains are largely informal and supply-driven, with farmers holding very little awareness of the market, remark Heike Axmann and Jan Broeze, Senior Researchers at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. Matching farming production with market needs, as well as putting the different stages of the value chain in conversation with each other, can help to bridge some of these gaps.
According to the Transforming Food Systems Under a Changing Climate initiative, information management for food demand and supply in distinct contexts, through smart marketing and data platforms, can help to facilitate this exchange. In turn, such setups can influence inventory movement and optimize warehouse storage, procurement approaches and supply chain policies.
Lini Wollenberg, Flagship Leader on Low Emissions Development at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), emphasizes that storage at this time is critical, as lockdowns globally can limit access to food, making it important to stretch what is available to communities in need.
A solid understanding of crop physiology and ideal handling, as well as a comprehensive look at the whole value chain, are important elements in developing a tailored approach to reduce food loss and waste. Any approaches that incorporate hardware or technology solutions must ensure that market needs, quality, volumes and variation are equally part of the equation. This will allow struggling food systems to move from a push market to one that meets benchmarks and holistically reflects demand.
A deep dive into Ethiopia’s dairy sector has revealed important pathways for reducing food loss and waste. A critical component of the population’s nutrition, 98% of milk in Ethiopia is produced by smallholder farmers. However, milk factories commonly face limited supply from farmers, whose ambient temperature storage, collection and transport of milk often lead to rejection due to poor quality. Cooling the milk, in cooling centers or on-farm chillers, is a key element in averting these losses.
Further research highlights that efficient packaging and transportation conditions can also play a transformative role in cutting food loss and waste. For example, using hermetically sealed bags can reduce post-harvest loss from cereal production in Tanzania from 14 percent to less than one percent, and transporting tomatoes in Nigeria – Africa’s second largest tomato producer – in plastic crates instead of stacked baskets, can reduce losses from 41 percent to five percent.
But let us not forget the climate crisis, and that solutions to curb food loss and waste must not hike up emissions. In fact, food loss and waste is often a missing piece of the climate puzzle. Project Drawdown – a collaborative resource for information on the leading climate solutions – has spotlighted food loss and waste reduction as the top-ranked solution to cut emissions. A greenhouse gas hotspot analysis is being conducted by the CCAFS Regional Program in East Africa and Wageningen Food & Biobased Research across key value chains in the region to pinpoint where food loss and waste reductions can best influence emissions reductions and climate co-benefits. This emissions calculator can even be applied to calculate the carbon footprint of your food choices.
Across high-income countries plagued by consumer waste, a different approach is needed. Linear food systems need to become a relic of the past, and instead all “waste” should be entered as inputs to the food system—in the form of compost, for example—to create circular food systems. All food excess needs to be redistributed, especially at this time of crisis where millions face hunger. Public awareness campaigns can help reduce over-purchasing and associated food waste, while taxation schemes can push food retailers to curb food waste and remove the aesthetic standards that lead to the discarding of so-called flawed food.
As large swaths of the global population are thrown into precarity, on the verge of facing what the World Food Programme Chief warns could be a ‘famine of biblical proportions,’ food loss and waste cannot be ignored. It is unthinkable that food is lost and wasted when communities around the world face an urgency of hunger that precedes, and is aggravated by, this pandemic. To give this world a fighting chance, ending the scandal of food loss and waste must become everyday practice.
Photo courtesy of CGIAR