By Michael Shank and Joachim von Braun
This week in Vatican City, at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, we discussed one of the world’s most critical economic, environmental, and social issues: food loss and waste. When one-third of all food is lost or wasted, this is a crisis from any perspective, moral or rational, and a puzzle for the sciences. You don’t have to be an economist – mindful that the cost of this loss and waste is nearing $1 trillion dollars – or a Vatican Cardinal, mindful of a moral mission to feed the hungry, to understand why it’s so problematic that 1.3 billion metric tons of food are lost in production or thrown away annually.
Countering this throwaway culture is the crux of this conversation. This isn’t just a food system problem, it’s a people problem. That’s why we take seriously Pope Francis’s message that “to throw food away means to throw people away”.
In bringing together, this week, the major players in preventing food loss and waste – from the United Nations, World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, to the African Union and EU Commissions, to a host of foundations, universities, INGOs, farmers’ organizations, and agricultural industry, we wanted to do three things: build consensus on the latest science, design a game plan for action and investment, and broaden our alliance.
We did that. And even Pope Francis shared the conference message on social media. Now, unless we roll it out globally, it’ll fall flat on our doorsteps. We have to communicate it to the world – across civil society, religious institutions, business, government, and the science community – as not everyone can attend a conference.
We know that food waste happens due to negligence, economic abundance, and problematic incentives at the consumer level. And we know that food loss occurs due to unfavorable climatic conditions, lack of technology, basic value chain infrastructure, financing and market access. We know the problems. Now we must scale up solutions and political and public support. In short, we need to win hearts and minds.
Across civil society, behavioral change is key. We need to make it cool to consume sustainably. Consumers are increasingly aware of their environmental footprint with food purchases, portion sizes, packaging materials, and origins of traded foods, but more is needed. Conscientious youth that care about sustainability will be especially helpful in shifting cultural norms.
Among faith-based communities, believers of all faiths can help us get to our goal of 50% reduction of food loss and waste by 2030, which is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3. That’s 10 years. An easy first step for the faithful, when sharing food at sabbath potlucks, shabbat dinners or iftars: ensure food is produced and consumed sustainably. Start here and lead by example. This is how we change behavior.
For business, we need models that are more inclusive and source directly from small-scale producers. We need product lines that are sustainable (e.g. affordable energy efficient refrigeration scaled up in the global south), implementing solutions that create shared value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders, which is what business leaders committed to doing at the UN recently.
That’ll require prioritizing impacts on low-income communities and the environment. (If food waste was a country, it’d be the 3rd highest emitter after China and the US, comprising 8 percent of greenhouse emissions.) That’ll also require setting and monitoring targets — company by company — and the involvement of all food chain suppliers and their employees. Everyone is a shareholder. Not just financial stakeholders.
Across government, it’s about infrastructure, especially in low- and middle-income countries, and better regulation (e.g. standards on arbitrary expiration dates and consequences for food waste). Critical investments in vertical coordination and modernization of value chains – like bonds launched by the World Bank – help reduce food loss and waste when moved to scale. This is especially important as diets are changing and demand for more diverse and nutritious food is rising.
Going forward, to raise the profile of the food loss and waste issue – while mobilizing aforementioned actors and their followers – we’ll need to be in campaign mode, mirroring Pope Francis’s urgency of message and making it matter to the masses. That’s the way we win this one.
Michael Shank is communications director at Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Joachim von Braun is the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.