FAO in North America

Holistic approaches to food loss and waste reduction amid COVID-19

02/07/2020

2 July 2020, Washington DC – While millions of people around the world lose their livelihoods due to the pandemic, and lines in front of food banks get longer, news about fresh produce being plowed under, milk being wasted and livestock being euthanized have received increasing attention.

Between measures adopted by governments to fight the virus, and consumer panic buying, more food is at risk of being lost along the food chain or wasted by retailers or households, if proper measures and practices are not adopted immediately. To highlight holistic approaches to tackle food loss and waste in North America as well as globally, while facilitating food access to vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, FAO North America organized a webinar highlighting a variety of perspectives, moderated by Florian Doerr, Associate Professional Officer at FAO North America

“Excessive food losses and waste are completely unacceptable in a world where almost a billion people go hungry, and pressures on natural resources are increasing. Reducing food loss and waste is not only a moral imperative, but also an economic and environmental one,” said Vimlendra Sharan, Director of FAO North America in his opening remarks.

 “It is important to speak about food loss and waste in the middle of a global health crisis, as promoting awareness can help to mitigate the potential negative impact of food security and nutrition,” explained H.E. Damiano Beleffi, Permanent Representative of San Marino to the U.N., and Ambassador to the USA and Canada.

In December 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to designate 29 September as International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. San Marino and Andorra played a key role in establishing the day to sharpen focus on the need to reduce food loss and waste for Sustainable Development.

“The coronavirus crisis has highlighted a number of weaknesses in food systems,” explained Rosa Rolle, Senior Enterprise Development Officer and Team Leader Food Loss and Waste at FAO.  Policy responses worldwide have focused on mitigating losses during production, storage and distribution; mitigating the impacts of border closures; stimulating processing capacities, and facilitating food redistribution initiatives. .

In an effort to facilitate access to food for all, particularly vulnerable groups, with a focus on maximizing the use of food that is produced, while reducing food waste, Rolle urged that “governments and the donor community must support the development of innovative partnerships and approaches with development agencies, civil society the food processing sector, and logistics service providers.”

North American perspectives

A distinguished panel highlighted perspectives and initiatives in North America from a policy, private sector and civil society perspective.  

“I have been working on the issue of food waste for quite a long time, and this moment in time has brought a new level of attention. For many people it's the first time they have ever gone to the grocery store and seen empty shelves,” said Representative Chellie Pingree, Member of Congress for the 1st District of Maine and Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Food Recovery Caucus.  

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree provided an update on policy initiatives in the United States highlighting the bipartisan House Food Waste Caucus that was launched in 2018 to explore opportunities to reduce food waste.

“The Food Recovery Act is a very comprehensive piece of legislation to facilitate food donations, standardize food date labeling and reduce food waste in schools. I also this year have introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act, aiming to reduce food waste by 75 percent by 2030 as a climate solution,” Congresswoman Pingree outlined. “Food waste is a very bipartisan issue. Here in the United States or around the world, we cannot have so many people going hungry, when we are literally dumping and destroying food because we cannot design a system that's appropriate.”

Meghan Stasz, Vice President of Packaging Sustainability at the Consumer Brands Association and co-lead of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, highlighted that “COVID-19 brought unprecedented disruptions in supply chains, and changed what, where and how often consumers shop.”

In 2011, the Consumer Brands Association, The Food Industry Association, and the National Restaurant Association created the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), an industry-led initiative focused on reducing food waste by increasing food donation and sending unavoidable food waste to productive use and away from landfills. Stasz highlighted food donations from the private sector, the key role of packaging in ensuring food safety and reducing food waste, while underlining the need to fix the heterogeneous recycling system across the US. “Innovation and collaboration along whole supply chains is key, to swiftly find solutions and be more resilient to future shocks,” underlined Stasz.

Blake Thompson, Chief Supply Chain Officer at Feeding America, a nationwide network of over 200 food banks, highlighted that the pandemic impacts the food donations food banks receive, and how they operate. Donations from the food service side are not fully filling the gap of a decline in retail food donations, while donations of perishables and dairy protein have increased.

“Across our network, we have seen a 60 percent increase in demand for charitable food, while 20 percent of partners had to permanently or temporarily close down due to a decline in volunteers and physical distancing requirements. We need to understand the scale of the problems which food waste and hunger are, and invest in more distribution infrastructure like cold chains and delivery trucks,” underlined Thompson.

“We've done the research, in Canada 58 percent of all the food we produce is lost or wasted, so there's more than enough food to feed everybody,” said Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization. “Second Harvest is unique in that we manage 90 percent perishable foods. It is all food rescue and that means we have a logistics system in place with members from coast to coast.

“The closure of the food service sector like hotels and restaurants increased the amount of surplus that was available, but also in a way that was difficult to manage for families, because they were large packages,” explained Nikkel. “Many food charities stopped, especially those relying on senior citizens, while many others appeared. Immediately we recognized that we needed to collaborate, and created the Canadian National Task Force with government and industry leaders.”

 “We need systemic interventions to address these crises, and we need to value food for what it is – a source of life,” concluded Nikkel. 

What gets measured gets managed

“Surprisingly little is known about food loss and waste on a global scale,” said Carola Fabi, Senior Statistician at FAO. “We developed a global food loss estimation model, indicating that globally, 14 percent of food produced is lost. Currently, national statistics systems are at risk of a partial or total blackout due to COVID-19,” she highlighted.

To mitigate the immediate information needs and provide countries with facts and information for decision-making, FAO has created an open-access big data tool. The platform gathers and analyzes daily information on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food and agriculture, value chains, food prices, food security and relevant measures undertaken, with the aim of providing countries with facts and information to build their decisions.

The session concluded that COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated pre-existing challenges in our food systems, including food loss and waste and food insecurity. Reducing food loss and waste is crucial to increase the efficiency and sustainability of food systems, delivering better on nutrition, food security, and the environment. There is an urgent need to raise awareness of the economic, social and environmental impacts of food loss and waste, and the coronavirus crisis could be a key opportunity to address the diverse underlying causes for food loss and waste, in North America, and around the world.  

Resources

-          Watch the webinar recording

-          Get an overview of FAO’s work on Food Loss and Waste

-          Read FAO’s Policy brief on Mitigating risks to food systems during COVID-19: Reducing food loss and waste

-          Browse real-time information in FAO’s Big Data tool on food chains under the COVID-19 pandemic

-          Learn more about 29 September the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste

-          Bipartisan Food Waste Caucus

-          Food Waste Reduction Alliance

-          Feeding America’s Coronavirus Response

-          Second Harvest Canada’s Coronavirus response