Can 2021 Be a Game-Changer for Food Waste?

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As much of the world ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some notable trends started to emerge around other global challenges. CO2 emissions dropped by 6.4% worldwide. In the UK, where I live, household-level food waste – a major contributor to climate change – dropped by around 30% in April 2020, soon after the start of the first lockdown. These numbers might sound like positive news in an otherwise painful year, but I and many other experts see them as reminders that we are still very much in the midst of multiple major global crises.

When it comes to food loss and waste, the numbers pre-pandemic were alarming. Worldwide, a third of all food produced goes uneaten. That’s more than 1 billion tons of food annually. This waste costs the global economy US$940 billion and generates 8% of our planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, as COVID-19 spread and the country went into lockdown, many families adapted to the uncertainty by being extra mindful to use up the food they were able to buy. People reported making a shopping list more frequently, using their freezer more often, and batch-cooking more regularly. Food waste rates dropped as a result. But when restrictions eased, people resumed their usual behaviours and food waste ticked back up by about equal measure. The UK is the only country to have measured food waste patterns during the pandemic, but it’s reasonable to assume that this phenomenon is evident in other developed economies such as the Netherlands and elsewhere too.

The need for global action

This tells me that, while short-term gains were made in the fight against food waste, they were indeed just that – short-term. And once life can finally return to normal after this pandemic, many of the problems we went into the pandemic with will still exist. It is good then that many of the world’s power players are asking now, how do we build back better? In the autumn, the United Nations will host the world’s first ever Food Systems Summit to advance game-changing solutions to a host of issues in our agricultural and food systems. I’m heartened that food loss and waste, one of the three pillars of the Food Sustainability Index, is among the priority focus areas.

Momentum has been building on this issue since 2015, when the UN first set a global target to halve food loss and waste by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the past year alone, more than ten of the world’s biggest retailers announced that 200 of their suppliers have committed to cutting food loss and waste from their operations through the 10x20x30 initiative. Several large companies have already reduced their food loss and waste by more than 25%, including Tesco in Central Europe, Campbell and Arla Foods. The UK and the Netherlands have each also shown what is possible at a national level, with the UK cutting food loss and waste by 27% between 2007 and 2018, and the Netherlands reducing household food waste by 29% between 2010 and 2019.

An uphill struggle

Despite these advances – and they are worth celebrating – the world remains woefully behind where it needs to be. Progress was too slow before the pandemic, and the effort remains an uphill climb. 2021 has already been a game-changing year for vaccines and medicine. The world is seeing what it is like to suffer an unimaginable crisis and to begin to see the other side. As we come out of the fog and pain of this crisis, we – every country, city, company, and citizen – need to commit ourselves to tackling other major global challenges with the same kind of cooperation, innovation, and urgency. I am hopeful that 2021 will be that year in the fight against food loss and waste. Doing so at the UN Food Systems Summit, the COP26 and beyond will help us also achieve our goals around climate change, protecting biodiversity, reducing hunger, and so much more.