Re: Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems - E-consultation to set the track of the study

Rahul Goswami Social sector researcher, National Agriculture Innovation Project, India, ...
30.04.2013

Dear HLPE and FSN Forum,

In considering the matter of food losses and food waste, the request by the CFS seeks a broad understanding of the issues that contribute to loss and waste. This understanding may be gained by applying the sustainability perspective with its three dimensions. It is also useful to apply perspectives that are held outside the sphere of the FAO and allied inter-governmental and multi-lateral agencies. These perspectives do much to link this topic with cultural approaches to food and cultivation, with the relevance of natural justice, or with the many limitations of current economic models when faced with the need for equity.

The guidance note has said: "Their global reduction [of food losses and food waste] is now presented as essential to improve food security (HLPE 2011, FAO 2012ab) and to reduce the environmental footprint of food systems (HLPE 2012, FAO 2012ab, UNEP 2012ab)." References have been made to the Rio+20 Conference and the Zero Hunger Challenge.

1. Connecting food insecurity (and hunger and malnutrition) directly with food losses and food waste is an area of policy that is woefully scarce of study and evidence. In part, this is because the accepted definitions of food losses (post-harvest and en route market aggregators) and food waste (within the retailing and processing cycles, in households and wherever food is prepared and sold) are seen as lacking essentially technological and institutional inputs that can bring in 'efficiency' and help change consumer behaviour.

The guidance note has also said that "food losses and waste can be first seen as a reduction of food availability for the poor and hungry" and that "by reducing the amount of food available, they [losses and waste] also have an impact on prices and thus on access to food". This is not as pervasive as is being made out. In most countries - and now the usual distinctions of 'developed' and 'developing' ought to be discarded, because the rate of adoption of 'food chains' and retail organising is so high - food losses occur because of the institutionalised pattern of food flow, from producing districts and counties to cities and urbanising regions that demand primary food crops. Rodale showed in 1981 that the average distance food travels from farm to consumer's home is 2,080 kilometres. The HLPE and CFS would do us a considerable service by, for example, mobilising in a collaborative manner the Food Security Network to seek and provide evidence of lower (negligible or recyclable) food losses in societies where the infrastructure-retail connection is weak or absent, and indeed for all those who continue to pursue fieldwork, such communities abound, and their food economics (and ecological grounding) is quite different. By the same token, food waste is to be found - and there is much new evidence on the subject - rising where urbanisation is increasing and where the agricultural models of the 1970s have, with technical booster shots, with monetary inducements linked to opportunistic policy, mutated into the 'chain'-based food and processed food delivery systems of this decade and the last one.

2. There is in the guidance note a concern raised about the energy required to grow food (as also to move it and transform it) and of that energy being lost because of food waste and loss. Hence, "reducing food losses and waste would also reduce the pressure on natural resources" said the guidance note and invokes "better resource efficiency".

This is indeed an exceptionally important point. Energy has become fundamental to the modern system of cultivation, collection, movement, processing, packaging, retail, distribution, sale and disposal. There are in general different levels of energy intensity to be found in meats (livestock, fish and poultry) as compared with cereals one the one hand and vegetables and fruit on the other. Noble announcements and promises notwithstanding (these are made by UN member states at the usual round of large gatherings every year, they are made during the G8 and G20 meetings, during the multitude of economic summits such as the World Economic Forum), neither the food industry nor governments (central or provincial) is in practice recognising (let alone curbing) the energy intensity of the modern food system.

If we look at some evidence from the USA (no doubt similar studies exist in the EU) between 1992 and 2002 the total energy use grew by 3.3% and food-related energy use by 22.4% (studied by Canning and others, 2010). Indeed, the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Economic Research Service analysis of food system energy use indicated that while total per capita energy consumption fell by about 1% between 2002 and 2007, food-related per capita energy use grew nearly 8%.

Now counterpose this startling food-energy overshoot with the following complaint: "In industrialised regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption. This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa, and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 870 million people hungry in the world." The complainant was the Director-General of FAO, when the FAO together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) began a campaign to encourage simple actions by consumers and food retailers to cut the 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost or wasted every year.

The imperative couldn't be more clear, but the energy (and therefore resource use, and the attendant methods used to extract those resources, from forests and rangelands, from the Arctic to under coral reefs) quotient of industrialised food is touched upon even more infrequently in what we today call 'emerging' and 'transition' 'economies' (emerging from what, to where, transitioning out of what, and why 'economies' when 'countries' or 'nations' served us perfectly well, such is the insidious nature of the market vocabulary). The race to commodify primary crop and food produce in South, East and South-East Asia has made it very difficult to assess the energy sunk into the industrial-commercial food systems these countries have adopted (P R China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand), a difficulty that is usually accompanied by the inappropriateness of questioning such costs in the face of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in a number of these countries. But we ought not to attempt outrunning energy limits to be respected - if FAO has showed (a 2012 report) that in the 'developed world' the consumption stage of the food chain is the least energy-efficient of all, we need also to recognise that the food systems that enabled such profligacy have been eagerly built (and are multiplying) in Asia.

If the 2010 study referred to above showed that food processing and consumption together accounted for about 60% of total 2002 food-related energy flows in the USA, a rise of 5% from 1997, then energy poverty (an awkward term, as it usually refers to grid power, and which tends to ignore energy thrift and ingenuity that can allow communities to live full lives with little or no dependence on fossil fuels) must be a backdrop. According to the International Energy Agency, about 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity (of the measureable, distributable kind) and about 2.7 billion people rely on biomass (as did their ancestors through the ages) for cooking and for light. Cooking energy can represent a significant part of the income of poor families. If in South Africa, the average low-income home spends 25% of its income on energy (compared with 2% for wealthier homes) then in South Asia such energy may reserve an equal proportion of income; after 60% of the total income is spent on food, that expense, together with the cost of buying firewood, coal or kerosene for cooking, leaves precious little for medical expenses, for education, topping up a mobile phone account, being able to buy one fruit a week.

3. The costs of that packet of pasta, that tetrapak (the 'xerox' of food packaging) of juice, that sachet of condiments, that plastic cup of ready-to-eat noodles. "Food waste at the consumer level in developed and in some developing countries is also emblematic of non-sustainable consumption patterns," said the guidance note which has added, "reducing food waste appears as a way to raise awareness more generally on sustainable consumption as a driver of sustainable food systems". Not I think in the face of a macro-economics that incentivises reckless practices from cultivation, to movement, to processing and packaging, to shaping consumer behaviour using advertising and aspiration - an alarming waste is built into such an approach, because the way in which national accounts are calculated, costs of such waste to environment and living habitats and to communities are externalised, anonymised.

And so we have in 2013 two generations (the younger one begins at an age of less than ten) of food consumers who have little or no community memory passed to them about food scarcity, or about famine. Whether in Mumbai, India or in Los Angeles, USA or in Sao Paulo, Brazil they have grown used to demanding and expecting the fulfilment of certain tastes (alien to their local cultures only 50 years ago) at whim, for these are accessible through a multitude of 'food service' outlets (which contribute to the global homogenisation of tastes and trends). Such behaviours are encouraged, and are the bitter glue that binds our concern about food losses and food waste, and these came to be global early, when for example canning became common, or when the rice cooker became an object of desire in middle class homes (how much resource inefficiency was represented by that device, a mixture of 'cheap' electronics, the supply of electricity, timed 'convenience', and at the end of it rice in ten minutes that required industrial processing which removed all the nutrients from the grain), or the takeaway styrofoam cup of coffee, a trend-status liquid that retails for about USD 3 for an average blend, a price that, measure for measure, is about 80 times what the smallholder farmer of arabica earns.

If we have a CFS that is wise about food systems - that they "encompass the ecosystem and all activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food" - then we can ask also for a CFS that recognises the extra-industrial world (see FAO's profoundly inspirational Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)) in which such 'losses' and 'waste' are concerns rendered much smaller because food continues to be treated as the basis of human life, with respect, with spirituality.

Yours sincerely, Rahul Goswami