The past few decades saw enormous gains in agriculture productivity and improvements throughout food systems from the farm to the table. We live in a world of plenty, now producing enough food to feed everyone. So why do we also live in a world where more than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from moderate or severe food insecurity?
Studies show that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. This accounts for more than one-fourth of calories, enough to feed 1.9 billion people an adequate diet for a healthy life. This precious commodity that could nourish millions of hungry women, children and families is instead ending up in landfills.
So pronounced is this problem that the United Nations, through its Sustainable Development Goals, called on the world to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and to reduce food losses along the production and supply chains by 2030.
Much has been said about how food is wasted in the retail and consumer levels. In high-income countries like the United States and Canada, food is commonly thrown away by grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers. Perfectly edible food that is considered “ugly” or nonmarketable is wasted instead of making their way to the tables of food-insecure families.
While waste happens at every stage of the supply chain, more than 30 percent occurs at production level. This occurrence can be especially prevalent in low-income countries and emerging market economies, where infrastructure such as adequate cold chain (refrigeration capacity), food storage and transportation, is often lacking.
Regardless of how or where food is lost or wasted, the effect on society and on our planet is devastating. Millions of people go hungry while much of the 1.3 billion tons of lost or wasted food are thrown into landfills where their greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment. In fact, if the greenhouse gases from food landfills were a country, it would rank third in emissions after the United States and China in terms of impact on global warming.
On the bright side, there are effective methods in place to combat this problem. Food banks, for example, are uniquely positioned to address the paradox of global hunger and food loss and waste. Food banks are community-based, nonprofit organizations that procure surplus, wholesome food that might otherwise be lost or wasted in the food system and redirect these surpluses to feed the hungry through networks of local charities and grassroots organizations. Their work reduces food wastage and protects the environment, provides food assistance to hungry and vulnerable people, and strengthens civil society through support of local humanitarian charities.
My organization, The Global FoodBanking Network, supports and advances food banks in more than 40 countries. Our network, along with food banks within the European Food Banks Federation (FEBA) and Feeding America, serves 62.5 million people and prevent approximately 2.68 million metric tons of safe, edible surplus food from being wasted. We collectively mitigate an estimated 10.54 billion kg of CO2-eq annually – equivalent to nearly 2.2 million passenger vehicles.
On the community level, food banks that redirect food from waste are making a direct and positive impact on people’s lives. In Colombia, for example, the Asociación de Bancos de Alimentos de Colombia (ABACO)’s food banks collect leftover crops and distribute them to the country’s most undernourished. The program, Escuela Reagro, aims to increase the collection of food from the field by organizing training programs. Escuela Reagro currently operates in 16 food banks across Colombia and has recovered more than 4.916 tons of fruits and vegetables, reaching 41,000 people facing hunger in 2018.
Leket Israel, Israel’s national food bank network, operates entirely on an agricultural gleaning model (collecting leftover crops from fields after they have been commercially harvested). Eighty-six percent of its distributed food is rescued from more than 500 farms. In 2018, Leket Israel harvested and distributed more than 15 million kilos to 175,000 needy people through 195 beneficiary institutions.
These are just a few examples of the innovative approach food banks take to save food from waste and redirect them to feed insecure populations. But food banks cannot do it alone. Governments must enact policies that promote and encourage food donations. Food producers, retailers, and governments should adopt simplified label recommendations, as currently 20 percent of safe, edible food is wasted over confusion with “best by,” “best before,” “use by,” and “sell by” dates on packages. And more businesses, farmers, and leaders must work collaboratively with organizations like food banks to get surplus food to organizations that serve the needy. Meeting our food loss and waste reduction targets by 2030 requires a multi-sector approach. Together, we can reach it.