By Richard Johnson
GENEVA - The Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation has come up with a Christmas and New Year gift that has the potential of feeding some 2 billion people around the world. The international cooperation agency, based in Berne, is placing $2.7 million at the disposal of three United Nations agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – to launch a joint project to tackle the global problem of food losses, beginning with pilot programmes in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.
The rationale behind the project is that about one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes, enough to feed 2 billion people. Food losses occur during harvesting, processing, transportation and storage as a result of inadequate infrastructure or lack of skills and technology.
The three agencies said on December 20 in a joint press release that the three-year project will focus in particular on reducing losses of grains and pulses such as maize, rice, beans and cow peas – staple foods that play a significant role in global food security and have a major impact on the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers.
Grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa alone are worth potentially $4 billion a year and could meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people, according to a 2011 report by the World Bank, FAO and the United Kingdom’s Natural Resources Institute.
According to the UN, the project will, among other things, identify critical points for losses in pulse and grain supply chains in Burkina Faso, DRC and Uganda, and identify and test potential solutions to issues such as ineffective harvesting and handling, storage moisture levels, attacks by rats, birds and other pests, and insect damage.
“When some 840 million people are going hungry every day, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that food produced is in fact consumed and not lost or wasted,” said Jong Jin Kim, Director of FAO’s Programme Support Division, speaking on behalf of the three agencies.
“Reducing food loss and waste will make significant amounts of additional food available, and at lower environmental costs, which is also critical in view of the need to produce 60 per cent more food by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population.”
FAO estimates that food losses and waste together account for about 30 per cent of cereals, 40-50 per cent of root crops, fruit and vegetables, 20 per cent of oilseeds, meat and dairy, and 30 per cent of fish produced each year.
At a global level, the joint initiative will share knowledge on the most effective ways to reduce post-harvest losses and help countries introduce policies and regulations to cut down on wastage at national and regional level, the UN informed
Food Wastage Footprint
The three UN food agencies’ statement came in the aftermath of a UN report in September 2013, which underlined that the waste of some 1.3 billion tons of food each year is causing economic losses of $750 billion and significant damage to the environment. The report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources, is the first study to analyze the impacts of global food wastage from an environmental perspective, looking specifically at its consequences for the climate, water and land use, and biodiversity.
One of the key findings of the report is that food that is produced but not eaten each year guzzles up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River and is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere. Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28 per cent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted.
Beyond the environmental impacts, food wastage costs some $750 billion annually to food producers.
“All of us – farmers and fishers; food processors and supermarkets; local and national governments; individual consumers – must make changes at every link of the human food chain to prevent food wastage from happening in the first place, and re-use or recycle it when we can’t,” said the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) José Graziano da Silva.
“We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost because of inappropriate practices, when 870 million people go hungry every day.”
The report points out specific features of food waste according to regions. For example, cereal waste – particularly that of rice – is a big problem in Asia, with major impacts on carbon emissions and water and land use.
Fruit wastage contributes significantly to water waste in Asia, Latin America, and Europe, while large volumes of vegetable wastage in industrialized Asia, Europe, and South and South East Asia translates into a large carbon footprint for that sector. Excluding Latin America, high-income regions are responsible for about 67 per cent of all meat waste.
As a companion to its report, FAO also published a comprehensive ‘tool-kit’ with recommendations on how food loss and waste can be reduced at every stage of the food chain. The tool-kit gives examples of projects around the world that show how national and local governments, farmers, businesses, and individual consumers can take steps to tackle the problem.
“Today’s excellent report by FAO underlines the multiple benefits that can be realized – in many cases through simple and thoughtful measures by for example households, retailers, restaurants, schools and businesses – that can contribute to environmental sustainability, economic improvements, food security and the realization of the UN Secretary General’s Zero Hunger Challenge,” said the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, while urging countries to join the agencies’ joint campaign to stem food waste ‘Think Eat Save - Reduce Your Foodprint!’
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged in his message for the World Environment Day on June 5, 2013 “all actors in the global food chain to take responsibility for environmentally sustainable and socially equitable food systems”:
Address food losses
“Food loss and waste is something we can all address,” Ban said, noting that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), FAO and public and private sector partners have launched the Think.Eat.Save: Reduce Your Foodprint campaign to raise global awareness and showcase solutions relevant to developed and developing countries.
Ban explained that infrastructure and technology can reduce the amount of food that perishes after it is harvested and before it reaches the market. Governments in developing countries can work to improve essential infrastructure and maximize trade opportunities with neighbours; developed nations can support fair trade and rationalize sell-by dates and other labelling systems; businesses can revise their criteria for rejecting produce; and consumers can minimize waste by buying only what they need and re-using left-over food.
The current global population of 7 billion is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. “But the number of hungry people need not increase. “By reducing food waste, we can save money and resources, minimize environmental impacts and, most importantly, move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat,” Ban said.
The scale of the food waste issue is highlighted in a new report, released on June 5 to coincide with World Environment Day, which found out that one out of every four calories produced by the global agricultural system is being lost or wasted.
According to the study ‘Reducing Food Loss and Waste,’ which was produced by the World Resources Institute and UNEP and draws from FAO research, the world will need about 60 per cent more food calories in 2050 compared to 2006 if global demand continues on its current trajectory.
“It is an extraordinary fact that in the 21st century, close to 25 per cent of all the calories linked with growing and producing food are lost or wasted between the farm and the fork—food that could feed the hungry, food that has required energy, water and soils in a world of increasing natural resource scarcities and environmental concerns including climate change,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, drawing attention to the absurdity that high volumes of perfectly edible produce are never consumed.
“The menu of case studies and recommendations in this study provide national and community-led solutions that ally smart policies with traditional knowledge, modern science and common sense,” he added, referring to the study’s recommendations. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 23, 2013]
Photo: ©FAO/Christena Dowsett