Three-course meal: How addressing food waste can deliver a triple win for sustainable business

Following the revelation that food banks around the world helped mitigate more than 10.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions while reducing food costs, edie explores whether the conversation on food waste needs to change to capture heightened calls for action on climate change.

Three-course meal: How addressing food waste can deliver a triple win for sustainable business

70% of fresh water us globally goes to agriculture

When it comes to food waste the common method of denoting its utterly wasteful journey from farm to fork is through measurements of weight and cost.  

Currently, around 1.6 billion tonnes of food worth approximately $1.2trn goes to waste each year, representing about one-third of the food produced globally by weight, a report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) notes.

Elsewhere, research conducted on behalf of Champions 12.3, the coalition of government, business and civil society leaders which aim to accelerate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of halving global food waste by 2030, has found catering firms can save $6 for every $1 they spend on action to tackle food waste.

In a business sphere still largely driven by profits and economics, translating food waste as an economic loss is a smart way to generate a wider corporate understanding of the opportunities to act. However, in an evolving society that is starting to measure businesses on ethical and environmental stances, does the way we communicate food waste need to change?

Last month, research published by international non-profit organisation, The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), found that food banks operating across 57 countries have served 62.5 million people with meals that would otherwise have gone to waste.

The study found that charitable food banks had prevented approximately 2.68 million metric tonnes of surplus food going to waste, which helped contribute to the mitigation of an estimated 10 million tonnes (10.54bn kg) of emissions annually – equivalent to taking 2.2 million passenger vehicles off the roads.

According to GFN’s president and chief executive Lisa Moon, businesses and NGOs can spur more action on food waste by translating and communicating the impact it has on global societal and environmental megatrends.

“Food is unique,” Moon tells edie. “We’re fortunate to be living in a day and age where the food system is as abundant as it is. The challenge is that in high-income countries, consumers want choices and in poor countries. there’s a real lack of infrastructure. This has ultimately produced the fact that a third of all food is going to waste.

“But what we’re not even talking about is all the resources that go into producing the food. All the water, growing, transportation, labour marketing and packaging. There are so many environmental and societal impacts to get food to its endpoint that are also going to waste. I think the conversation needs to become more apparent that this is a labour and resource-intensive process.”

Societal stewards

GFN, which supports food bank organisations across 30 countries, studied data from a network of redistribution organisations including the European Food Banks Federation (FEBA) and Feeding America as part of its study. The network is keen to promote the societal and environmental benefits that tackling food waste can bring, which can subsequently be highlighted by businesses to show they’re acting as ethical stewards of society.

An estimated 821 million people across the globe go hungry, GFN notes. Yet, in stark contrast, around 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food is wasted.

Moon is keen to note the role that food banks can play in the wider fight to reduce food waste, but even the network has its limitations. Food banks and redistribution schemes have become a popular solution for food manufacturers and retailers, but their impact is limited to a regional level as food approaching the end of its edibility isn’t suitable for long-haul transportation spanning different countries.

This is one of the major issues when viewing food waste as a global issue; there is an imbalance between production and consumption. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that, per capita, North American and European consumers waste between 95-115 kg of food a year, while in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throws away only 6-11 kg a year. Despite these trends, industrialised and developing countries roughly waste the same quantities of food – 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively.

The wasteful habits largely differ because of differing infrastructure and consumer choice from nation to nation. For Moon, part of the food waste mountain can be climbed by developing policies and partnerships that enable food from manufacturing and retail to be consumed.

“For solutions to truly be sustainable you have to create wins for all partners involved,” Moon says. “A lot of the businesses we’re involved with have setups in low-income and developing countries where the infrastructure and incentives to save on food waste isn’t there. We need a partnership mindset to be able to tackle certain cases of food waste.”

One of the major stumbling blocks for regional food banks and redistribution schemes, for example, is the threat of liability over donating food that hasn’t been sold in a store.

In the US, the 1996 Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was introduced as a federal law to protect businesses that donate food in good faith. Under the Act, businesses are protecting from liability over the age, packaging, or condition of foods or grocery products donated in good faith to a non-profit or charity.

However, the Act has only been introduced across nine countries to date, meaning that many global businesses are missing out on an opportunity to help eradicate hunger at regional levels, creating societal benefits and driving efficiency against company waste targets.

Environmental explanations

Food redistribution – and its subsequent societal impact – is becoming a common practice both in the UK and abroad. But while food waste is seen as a material impact for waste and charitable pillars of CSR strategies, forward-thinking companies are exploring it through a new lens.

General Mills, owner of food brands such as Cheerios, Häagen-Dazs and Betty Crocker, is one US company that has focused on food donations to reduce its waste levels while simultaneously feeding the hungry. The company helped launch MealConnect, which has saved 900 million pounds of surplus food from going to waste in the US.

Around 15% of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to farm-level practices, which has a significant impact on a full value chain emissions reduction target of 28% by 2025 (against a 2010 baseline).

As of 2018, General Mills has reduced emissions by 13%, more than its operational carbon footprint. The company’s chief sustainability and social impact officer Mary Jane Melendez believes that part of this reduction is due to framing food waste through an environmental scope.

“We’re working to reduce our emissions and as companies become more focused on climate change and ways they can reduce their own carbon footprint, I think that people will look internally first at their operations, but then externally and upstream and downstream,” Melendez tells edie.

“Around 15% of GHG emissions at General Mills take place in the agricultural area and from the farm, outside of our own four walls. We’re looking at the power that we and regenerative agriculture has and there’s a huge opportunity to really move the needle and help combat food waste while generating a carbon benefit for your own targets.”

Last month, General Mills committed to implementing regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. The company believes that regenerative practices – deployed to intentionally enhance the natural resources used by farming communities in its supply chain – will create economic and societal benefits for the farmers.

But at a food waste level, Melendez agrees with Moon that the resources needed to create food can be used to create different conversations that ultimately spur action on food waste. The regenerative approach is helping to boost farmer yields while enhancing the land they use and General Mills is combining it with an array of waste-reducing initiatives – from anaerobic digestion to composting.

Regenerative approaches are helping overcome some key environmental concerns. Statistics show that 33% of soils are moderately or highly degraded, 20% of the world’s aquifers are overexploited, 80% of mineral input does not reach consumers,29% of ‘commercial’ fish populations are overfished and 70% of fresh water us globally goes to agriculture. Clearly, new methods of production are required that alleviate these trends.

Climate considerations

At a time where school-based climate strikes are a common occurrence and David Attenborough is using Netflix and the BBC to educate consumers on climate change, Melendez notes that the way we communicate food waste can have a powerful impact.

“It is powerful to tell the story of how much food is wasted alongside how many people are going hungry in the world,” Melendez adds. “But as people become more in tune with climate change and the environment, it’s a massive story for the public and the power that every one of us has to do good for the environment and our wallets if we treat food as the asset that it is.

“If food waste was a country it would be the third largest emitter. It’s such common sense to treat food as the asset it is. It’s not food waste, it’s food loss; it’s nourishing and sustaining and changes lives, yet a third of it never arrives on the plate.”

It is the ‘plate’ that is the main barrier to food waste. According to WRAP estimates, more than half of the UK’s food waste total – around 7.3million tonnes – derives from the home, equating to around £470 worth of food being needlessly discarded every year by the average household. 

Engagement efforts from businesses to date have focused on economic savings and leftover recipes to try and reduce this figure, but in an era of climate awareness, these messages could be combined with environmental trends to highlight the sheer destruction that food loss is causing the planet.

Combatting food waste is a rare case where the results can provide a unique triple win; for society, the planet and business strategies. The GFN report urges companies to frame these opportunities through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), described by many as an ideal communications tool. But as Melendez summarises, its impact that food loss mitigation can have is unique.

“When I articulate the impact to our board and trustees, I’m saying how powerful combatting food waste can be. There are not many places where we can put a philanthropic message or initiative that would deliver that kind of result.”

Matt Mace

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