A team of international experts, including representatives from the World Resources Institute (WRI), the United Nations and other organizations focused on sustainable development and the environment, have developed a new set of guidelines for nations, cities, industry and other groups to use when calculating how much food waste they are generating, how it’s happening and how they can address the problem. The new protocol was launched Monday at the Global Green Growth Forum in Copenhagen.
One of the problems with addressing the issue of food waste is that there’s no international standard for how it should be dealt with, or even how it should be defined. For instance, some organizations identify food waste as any edible food that doesn’t end up being consumed by humans, whereas other groups argue that discarded food that is later converted into animal feed should not be considered waste.
Additionally, there’s no international standard for quantifying and reporting the amount of food that’s lost at any stage of the supply chain. At a Thursday teleconference, Mark Little, head of food waste reduction for the company Tesco, pointed out that his company calculates how much food waste is occurring within the industry at the supply chain level by scanning the product codes for discarded food and noting the content weight of each individual product. But he noted that other companies or organizations might instead weigh the contents of garbage cans containing discarded products, which might result in slightly different numbers.
The result is that, to date, it’s been difficult to come up with an accurate international account of food that’s being wasted across borders and throughout the supply chain — and that makes it harder for experts to identify where the most food is being lost and come up with the best ways to combat the problem.
But environmentalists and food security activists alike argue that cutting down on food waste is crucial to building more sustainable agricultural systems, reducing greenhouse gases and making sure there’s enough to feed the rapidly growing population, which is expected to exceed 9 billion people by mid-century.
While current estimates aren’t perfect (for many of the above reasons) and differ somewhat from one source to the next, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has suggested that about 1.6 billion tons of food were wasted in 2007 alone, and that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of all the wasted food came to about 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 7 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than any country in the world, with the exceptions of China and the United States, emitted over the course of the year.
The problem has become such a concern that it’s even made it onto the United Nation’s list of sustainable development goals. The target is to cut global food waste in half at the retail and consumer levels, as well as reduce food losses along production and supply chains, by the year 2030.
“What concerns all of us is how are we going to measure the progress,” said James Lomax, program officer for agriculture and food systems at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), during the same teleconference. “And we need to have a clear protocol and methodology for ensuring that we are not comparing apples and pears when we start to look at have we even started to globally reduce food waste.”
According to Robert van Otterdijk of the FAO, the new protocol “gives us a complete instruction on what we all have to take into account in order to effectively reduce food loss and waste.”
The protocol provides a variety of possible definitions for food loss and waste and allows governments, companies or other entities to choose which definition they prefer based on the goals they’re trying to meet. For example, the document notes that an organization trying to focus on improving food security might choose to define food waste as only the parts of products that are considered edible for human consumption, excluding components such as the rinds on fruits or the bones in meat products.
The protocol also includes a variety of methods that can be used to quantify the amount of food that’s being wasted at any point along the supply chain, depending on an entity’s goals and the amount of time and money it wants to pour into the calculation process. Each of these methods includes information on its overall accuracy and the amount of resources it requires.
In these ways, the guidelines allow various governments and other groups to choose the definitions and methods that work best for their individual goals and resources (and be clear about which ones they’re using), while still presenting a limited — and standardized — set of options.
It remains unclear how many national governments will adopt the new protocol — or, for that matter, how many local governments, industry groups, nonprofits or other organizations will do so. Currently, several countries — including the United States — have set their own national goals for the reduction of food waste. (The U.S., for instance, called last year for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by the year 2030.)
Additionally, the United Nations’ sustainable development goals were adopted by more than 150 world leaders. The current challenge is to come up with a system for individual governments to report on their progress in meeting these targets, said Lomax of UNEP, which would include international progress on the food waste goals.
In the meantime, the new protocol underscores the growing concern of researchers, policymakers and activists alike over improving the sustainability of food production and consumption — an ever-rising priority in a world threatened by climate change, resource shortages and a rapidly growing number of mouths to feed.
“[By] developing food loss and waste inventories in conformance with this standard, users will be able to better understand how much food loss and waste is generated and where it goes,” said Craig Hanson, global director of food, forests and water at the WRI. “Such information is a critical foundation for developing effective strategies for reducing food loss and waste and monitoring progress over time.”