According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO's) Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources summary report, one-third of the food produced annually worldwide - 1.3 billion tons - is lost or wasted. The greenhouse gas, water and land footprints associated with this wasted food are significant. The wasted food generates more greenhouse gas emissions than any country except China or the U.S.A., consumes enough water to fill Lake Geneva three times, and accounts for approximately 30 percent of all agricultural land worldwide. This waste also causes biodiversity impacts. None of these figures takes indirect land use (a highly complex issue) into account.
The FAO study aimed to increase understanding of the impacts and causes of food wastage to identify opportunities for reducing the waste and its impacts. Recognizing that regional and crop variation need to be taken into account, the FAO performed its analysis using eight commodity and seven regional categories.
The study looked at a total of 56 so-called "region*commodity" categories derived from every combination of the eight commodities and seven regions. The FAO study indicated certain "environmental hotspots" where key changes could have real, immediate impact. The data and conclusions gained from the "region*commodity" categories (e.g. starchy roots in South and Southeast Asia, meat in North America) are insightful and can assist stakeholders in evaluating investment and operational enhancements in a more targeted and intentional manner. For example, cereal wastage in Asia is the most significant environmental impact, driven especially by methane emissions from rice paddies. Improvements to this one area could have a positive and measurable impact.
The information, trends and data throughout the report are worth a read. However, I found myself becoming overwhelmed with data and the need to evaluate - and place a relative value on - water versus climate or land impacts.
With 56 "region*commodity" categories being analyzed for carbon, blue water, land use and biodiversity impacts along all stages of the supply chain (from farm to consumer trash bin), determining which regions and/or commodities have the biggest overall impact becomes quite complicated. Just a few highlights include:
- Cereal - primarily wheat and rice - is a hotspot, with large impacts on carbon, water and arable land. Rice is an especially important commodity, driven by the water- and carbon-intensive production as well as high consumer-level wastage.
- Meat has a high impact due to the high land use and carbon intensity of its production. Higher income regions and Latin America are hotspots for meat, due to higher consumption and waste levels in those areas.
- Fruit impacts blue water usage the most because of the high requirements for water in production.
- Starchy roots (e.g. rice) provide a good example of how the improved land resource efficiencies associated with higher yields play an important role in reducing overall impacts on a per kilogram basis.
Now let's discuss this kind of data in the context of consumers. We are focusing a lot of attention and resources on making detailed information available to the consumer. But is this information too much of a good thing? I am not opposed to providing that information. It is useful to many, many people - especially to the people who are making the changes on the ground. But consumers should not be expected to fully understand issues this complex.
I would rather see more attention focused on the following areas: helping producers of perishable foods (e.g. highly carbon- and water-intensive meat and dairy) to preserve their goods and schedule their deliveries to meet their customers needs; improving infrastructure; training producers on better farming, handling and preservation techniques; or shifting consumer behavior to become less wasteful.
Let's take a closer look at that last area. Consumers play important roles (e.g. supporting responsible brands, minimizing their own individual footprints). What information is most helpful to incite positive behavioral shifts in consumers? Consumers should understand that there are significant environmental impacts embedded in all of our food - and in all of our goods. And, yes, understanding which foods have higher carbon, water or biodiversity intensity is helpful.
With this said, brands - not consumers - should become the experts in the commodities they process, and in the impacts associated with their supply chains and products, and addressing the impacts in meaningful and measurable ways. The consumers should be able to support responsible brands without having to decipher technical or otherwise complex information and evaluate the trade-offs between different impacts (e.g. water versus climate) at a product level. (See my next article for more discussion on this topic).
In the end, I appreciate the value that detailed data helps people in a position to affect change (e.g. buyers, funders) to make informed decisions and allocate resources to have the most positive impacts possible. However, I feel it is best to simplify the myriad of data and calls to action to a few simple and consistent messages that resonate with a wider base of consumers. Clearly, minimizing waste is certainly an example of such a message.