The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 specifically aims to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. However, this issue is at the heart of massive challenges and opportunities encompassing the SDGs’ overarching goal of living in a fair and sustainable world. Food waste is a multifaceted and complex issue which leads to social and ethical concerns but also deeply impacts the environment. In that sense, addressing it is a priority that requires both holistic thinking and actions that target our whole food system.
A fifth of all the food that is produced in Europe becomes waste, equating to 88 million tonnes of food being lost on a yearly basis. This means 92 kilograms of food is wasted per inhabitant every year. Comparatively, in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, this amount ranges from 6 to 11 kilograms. Food waste is also an economic and social issue, costing around 143 billion euros every year at a time when 42 million Europeans still cannot afford proper meals.
Adopted in 2015 by all 192 members of the United Nations, the SDGs aim to “achieve sustainable development in three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – in a balanced and integrated manner” via 17 overarching goals. Among them, SDG 12.3 specifically aims to reduce food waste by 50% in 2030. However, this goes beyond a mere target as SDGs are not only about sustainability but also resilience and social fairness, and because addressing food waste requires holistic measures, the solutions implemented could fit and apply within more than half of all SDGs.
The consequences of a broken food system is the need to see the big picture when addressing food waste. We do not strive to reduce food waste for the sole purpose of reducing a percentage. We do it because it is one of the many entry points to fix a wider system that is on the verge of collapsing and instead, promoting a fairer, more sustainable world for every living being. For example, the food sector – and food waste within – is the highest contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. But this is not only about climate, this is about farmer’s poverty, soil depletion, and nutrient planetary boundaries for nutrients.
Where we see the most dangerous threats and challenges to our planet is where we also see the biggest opportunities for restoration the opportunity to restore our global food system to ensure comprehensive measures are taken. Solving food waste requires holistic answers to reshape our broken food system. And by doing so, it aims at achieving the SDG’s ambitions.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), food waste contributes to up to 10% of human-based carbon emissions . The impact of food waste on global CO2 emissions – through the carbon-intensity of food production when transported or stored for instance and its disposal through the release of greenhouse gas emissions when decomposing – is increasingly more asserted. Given the urgent need to decarbonise our planet, it is clear therefore that reducing and preventing food waste must be a key priority to focus on in the coming years.
Besides the huge volumes of greenhouse gas emissions that occur from food waste, there are also a myriad of other environmental challenges that arise from food waste and the way it is taken care of. For example, in the context of soil depletion and diminution of agricultural areas, it is estimated that, in Europe, a staggering 100 million hectares – twice the size of Spain – are used to grow food which will only be wasted later . Furthermore, in most cases such organic waste is not properly managed, often being sent to landfills or to be burnt. Instead, home and community composting methods can be part of a system that feeds the nutrients of leftover food back into soils and therefore reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers that damage the land in which crops are grown.
From the poorest sections of the population, those who are unable to afford sufficient amounts of food, to farmers whose production does not fit aesthetic requirements, food waste is the reflection of contemporary social and moral issues. We cannot afford such a level of wastage when almost 10% of the European population struggles to properly eat. Especially when, in the end, the burden falls on the shoulder of farmers whose production is refused by the agro-industry for not fitting their requirements.
Solutions include the need for a global framework. All of the issues mentioned above are interlinked to one another, meaning that to address them all effectively we must look at implementing measures from crop to compost, embedded in a general framework.
Consumers are often the ones blamed when it comes to food waste. Yet almost 50% of food waste does not happen in our fridges, but rather in the pre-consumption steps, from production to food services. For instance, around 30% of food waste in Europe happens at the production and processing steps.
To face this, many initiatives incentivising food donations from businesses to consumers, such as Too Good To Go, are trying to fill this gap. Yet, in spite of their great results they do not – and are not meant to- tackle the whole system. They help optimise a system, but it is this very system which needs to be completely reshaped.
This means that for each step of the food supply chain, actions need to be taken to thoroughly address it as a whole. And it has to be holistically framed with the relevant policies, that focuses on all the steps at the same time to ensure joint effort between different stakeholders.
When it comes to social, environmental and economical sustainability, the answer can often be found in one single-word – local. Food waste is no exception to this. The development of short food supply chains is the key to creating a system that reduces food waste and the impact of food production on our planet. By shortening the length of supply chains, we can reduce the required energy needed for processing, transporting and storing of food, which are also key parts of the system where a significant portion of food is wasted. Also, when farmers have the option to directly sell their food to consumers, they do not suffer from the unfair trading practices imposed by the agro-industry, instead they would benefit from higher and fairer revenues. The list of benefits could keep going, all in-line with the 11th SDG to have “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
The European Union has made pledges and commitments ensuring the alignment with the SGDs and especially the need to reduce food waste by 50% in 2030. This paves the way for a general framework but it needs to be improved by the adoption of binding targets and policies all along the food chain within the EU. And now is the moment to do so. The Green Deal, the soon-to-come Farm 2 Fork strategy and new Circular Economy Action Plan all open the possibility to build on the existing legislation and go further, to where we need to be.Reducing food waste contributes to achieving several other SDGs beyond just SDG 12, through the required holistic approach that is needed to tackle this issue. Solving food waste is not solely about reducing the percentage of wasted food, it is about shaping a sustainable food system that is fair to everyone. The European Union is now at a crossroad and has to seize the opportunity to provide such a system.