Latin American Cities Must Tackle Food Waste

This op-ed appeared in Spanish on October 14 in esglobal. Read Las ciudades de América Latina deben luchar contra el desperdicio de comida here.

Imagine tossing your entire lunch in the trash bin every day. It sounds absurd, but it’s not so far-fetched. Around one-third of all food the world produces is never eaten – either lost in production or wasted by retailers and everyday consumers – even as 800 million people struggle to have enough to eat. The FAO reports that the food lost or wasted in Latin America alone could feed an estimated 300 million people.

The human toll is devastating enough but food loss and waste also costs the global economy $940 billion USD per year and is a huge environmental problem. In total, 8 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet can be traced back to food loss and waste.

The numbers are startling. But with challenges come opportunities. Today, Latin America is more urbanized than any other part of the world – 85 percent of its population will live in cities by 2025 – placing the region at the forefront of the fight to reduce food waste in the urban environment.

In cities, more food goes to waste at the retail and consumer levels for a number of reasons. As incomes rise, the relative cost of food decreases, which can lead people to buy more than they end up eating. People also tend to shop at supermarkets, which display the very best-looking produce. That misshapen carrot or the bruised apple? It’s perfectly edible, but many supermarkets choose to bin it anyway. Urban areas are also home to countless restaurants, hospitals, catering companies, offices and other places that throw away large amounts of food.

There are ways to stop so much uneaten food from ending up in landfills, though it will take more than city leaders’ sheer will alone.

First, they need targets to create ambition and motivate action.  Governments and businesses involved in the food supply chain should establish reduction targets consistent with Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which calls for halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains by 2030.

Cities then need data on where and how much food is going uneaten inside their limits. Currently, few cities have that kind of insight. Without this knowledge, it’s near impossible to design the right strategies to turn things around, or to know what progress is being made.  The Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (FLW Standard) can help. Released this summer, the FLW Standard is the first of its kind to provide governments and businesses a consistent way to measure and report on how much food is wasted and where it goes.

Lastly, to truly drive change, cities need action. With a target in hand and knowing data about where and how waste happens, leaders can develop the right kinds of policies and programs to reduce waste. Every context will be unique and the solutions different, but in urban areas this often means educating consumers about ways to reduce the amount of food they throw away, developing programs that rescue unsold food that can be used by food banks, creating policies that simplify food date labeling and incentivizing businesses to re-purpose waste.

October 16 marks World Food Day. The following day, I will join many leaders for the start of Habitat III in my home city of Quito. My message to them is simple: food waste is an urgent sustainable development problem, but it is a solvable one.

Already, we see significant progress in some places. The United Kingdom has reduced waste in people’s homes by 21 percent, and Denmark has reduced its waste by 25 percent.  If Latin American cities tackle this issue head on, the region will meet the challenge set forth by SDG Target 12.3 while improving food security, reducing its environmental footprint and building sustainable economies.

Yolanda Kakabadse is president of WWF International and the former Ecuadorian Minister of Environment. She is also a member of Champions 12.3, a coalition of leaders dedicated to inspiring ambition, mobilizing action and accelerating progress toward achieving Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.