Food waste: how governments, financiers and consumers can play their part

This op-ed first appeared in Thomson Reuters on March 23. 

A recent report from the Champions 12.3 coalition underscores the fact that the global community is capable of tackling the long-running issue of food loss and wastage if all players in the food ‘supply chain’ take action. The challenges are well defined, the incentives are many. But are we doing what is necessary?

Almost 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. Many of them, ironically, are the smallholder or subsistence farmers in developing countries who grow many of the food ingredients we eat such as rice and cocoa.

More than an irony, it is a travesty, when you put those statistics alongside the fact that a third of food produced is wasted or lost, either during harvest, on the way to market or on the table. This costs the global economy $940 billion a year and accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on these facts, stakeholders across the world can agree that there is a problem.

The Champion 12.3 partners are directly addressing Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food loss along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.

In ‘origin’ countries, where food is grown, the very first step is ensuring that farmers are equipped with the knowledge, resources and skills to grow, harvest and store crops so that food loss, contamination and deterioration are reduced. It requires addressing interlocked issues encompassing many of the Global Goals – including water, climate change and land degradation, but also access to finance, gender equality and even literacy, which all affect farmers’ ability to produce good quality crops.

Poor infrastructure must also be addressed. Many rural regions need basic transport and facilities to maximise efficiencies and reduce food loss at the start of the supply chain.  Investing in farm-gate storage and infrastructure, including warehouses and silos, are a crucial first step in tackling this problem. Encouraging smallholder farmers to form cooperatives or associations to facilitate fast collection of crops is another. Bringing refining and processing facilities closer to sources of origin is yet another way to reduce spoilage, bring down transport emissions and add crucial value to local economies.

New research from the Champions 12.3 coalition shows that for every $1 invested by companies in measuring waste, training staff, improving storage and changing packaging, a $14 return is generated. It shows that reducing food loss and waste improves companies’ relationships with customers, vendors and other stakeholders.

We all know there is a problem and we all know it is the right thing to do to fix it.

As part of the Champions 12.3 coalition, I urge stakeholders who have yet to act to join the many who have.

Governments, like business, must play their part by strengthening infrastructure, creating storage assets, investing in logistics and supporting smallholders to reduce and eliminate food waste at the production end.

Financiers must create the markets that generate and make available infrastructure funding, and seek out projects that connect rural communities to value-added manufacturing and markets for their goods.

Consumers in the developed world need to change basic behaviors by buying what they need and using what they buy. Consumers everywhere should be prepared to pay a premium for goods that have been produced and delivered sustainably.

By approaching global food security from different directions, with equal emphasis on reducing waste, improving supply and working with consumers and governments to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production, we can truly make a systemic difference.

Sunny Verghese is co founder and group CEO of commodity trader Olam International Ltd, a member of the Champions 12.3 campaign group advocating for the reduction of food loss and waste.