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“If we want to achieve food security we must ensure that we look after the vital ecosystems that allow us to produce our food”

27 May 2016

These are the words of Amina J. Mohamed, Minister of Environment of Nigeria, and at the heart of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ mission to achieve a world without hunger. This year we celebrate World Environment Day (WED) on 5 June by focusing on the environmental dimension of a sustainability challenge that is central to FAO’s work: the issue of global food loss and waste (FLW).

FAO estimates that one-third of food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted, amounting to a total of 1.3 billion tons. Reducing FLW has been enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals and consequently the international community is obliged to address the food loss and waste challenge. Ensuring that food is handled and consumed more sustainably now and in the future requires ambitious and collective global efforts, and transformational change is needed both at international and household level. Nevertheless, as FAO is highlighting, reducing FLW would have positive impacts on the environment and is necessary for inclusive and sustainable food systems.

Food loss and waste and the environmental impacts

Food production relies on a scarce ecological resource base that has to support multiple needs of the global industry. Land area is needed for food production, animal feed, timber, etc., and often at the expense of natural forest lands. Likewise, aquatic ecosystems and fish stocks have to support a growing fisheries industry, including fish feed for aquaculture. Ecosystem degradation represents a lost opportunity to achieve the maximum sustainable output of food production and secure food and nutritional requirements of the world’s most vulnerable people. The land use sector has to be more productive by making more efficient use of the resources available. At the same time, current estimations indicate that approximately 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land area is occupied to produce food that is never consumed by humans. FLW, through the inefficient and unsustainable handling of food, has impacts on deforestation, ecosystem degradation and natural resource depletion. In addition, each year approximately 35 percent of global fish and seafood products are either lost or wasted with a considerable proportion due to discard at catch level. This number is unacceptably high considering that fish stocks and their supporting ecosystems are overexploited and degraded worldwide due to poor governance, management and fishing practices.

The impacts of FLW are not only connected to the agricultural or aquatic ecosystems where food is produced. Food commodities are transported and traded across continents and additional inputs are needed for each activity in the supply chain. Food systems consume about 30 percent of global available energy and out of this portion, 38 percent is utilized to produce food that is either lost or wasted. Water resources are also used throughout the food supply chain with the majority being utilized at the production stage for irrigation. FLW results in enormous wastage of water resources and represents a significant issue, particularly in the context of increasing water scarcity and adverse impacts from climate change.

Finally, the natural resources and inputs needed in the process and the actions related to waste disposal all generate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change. These aggregated impacts make FLW a major contributor to climate change, accounting for around 8 percent of total global GHG emissions and increases vulnerability to climate change, which FAO is highlighting later this year at World Food Day 2016.  

Food loss and waste reduction and environmental sustainability

Preventing FLW presents an important opportunity to address major drivers of global environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity while simultaneously helping to meet the need for food and nutrition security. The cascading effects of changing unsustainable patterns in food production and consumption by improving efficiency in food systems are likely to have broader implications towards environmental sustainability.

Reducing FLW is both a logical and compelling opportunity to integrate actions in food supply chains with sustainable development objectives and climate targets. While the response to FLW will vary according to regions, the issue is global and requires urgent action from all countries. It is unacceptable that natural resources are being depleted and vital ecosystems are degraded to produce food that is ultimately never consumed, while nearly 795 million people are living in chronic hunger. This waste of resources is also aggravating climate change which in turn will have severe impacts on food productivity in the coming decades. We need to change our mindset on how we value and consume resources and make it a priority to prevent FLW.

Key considerations and recommendations

  • Reducing FLW presents a cost-effective opportunity to improve resource efficiency in the agriculture sector and help mitigate risks of natural resource depletion. In addition, reducing FLW would ensure more sustainable use of resources thereby putting less pressure on ecosystems, including soils and water.
  • Addressing fish losses and waste including discards is necessary to reduce the impacts of fisheries on aquatic ecosystems. Together with a transformation in fisheries governance and management such measures would contribute to a more sustainable exploitation by maximizing utilization of the resource and potentially reducing drivers of overfishing.
  • Food losses in low-income countries are often connected to the lack of access to energy, particularly in the post-harvest phase. In order to make the transition towards sustainable food supply chains that reduce both food losses as well as the fossil fuel dependence in food systems, it is necessary to upscale clean or low-carbon technologies. Increased deployment of technologies that use renewable energy would improve the sustainability of food systems while reducing losses in developing countries.
  • Efforts that reduce FLW are essential to enhance global climate action because of their collective contribution to three overall objectives: mitigating climate change by reducing GHG emissions associated with FLW, strengthening resilience to cope with climate change while improving food availability and nutrition. FLW reduction measures in the context of climate smart food systems should therefore be integrated in climate change strategies and action plans as additional opportunities towards achieving mitigation and adaptation objectives.
  • Reducing the amount of food that is lost or wasted is a prerequisite in the context of promoting and eventually achieving sustainable agriculture. Addressing policies and regulations that lead to food waste, such as agricultural and fisheries subsidies is necessary for sustainable natural resource management. Also, adjusting subsidies would make more efficient use of public funds by reducing capital that is spent to produce food that is ultimately never consumed by people.
  • Emphasis must be targeted at improving access to finance while encouraging appropriate policy incentives and building management capacity. Bringing together governments, food producers and investors can help identify challenges and opportunities for addressing deficiencies in food systems and accelerate the deployment of sustainable technologies in food supply chains. Combining such efforts with sustainable agricultural practices and consumption patterns can pave the way towards safeguarding environmental resources and ultimately meeting the goals and targets set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

The content of this article is based on the forthcoming working paper: The Post-2015 Development Agenda: How Food Loss and Waste Reduction can contribute towards Environmental Sustainability and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For more information on food loss and waste and the linkage with environment and climate change, please contact Ms Emilie Wieben: emilie.wieben@fao.org

 

 

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