Why we’re failing to reduce food waste

November 25, 2019

Why we’re failing to reduce food waste

Pete Pearson, WWF, is a passionate food waste expert and advocate, working with grocery chains, retailers, the hospitality sector, the farming industry and schools to improve food waste practices across sectors.

By Pete Pearson, Senior Director, Food Loss and Waste, WWF

Wasting food is a problem that few willingly own up to and one that businesses are still struggling to eliminate for one primary reason: we don’t measure it. 

I’ve been a food waste warrior for more than 10 years, and since 2015, I’ve helped lead the development of a global food waste program at World Wildlife Fund. The food system causes a massive environmental impact, accounting for 70% of biodiversity loss, 70% of freshwater use, soil erosion and the largest user of chemicals of any industry. Then we turn around and waste an estimated 30-40% of what we produce. By wasting our food, we waste the land, water and energy used to produce it. We convert habitats for agriculture and threaten wildlife, hence why WWF cares about the food we produce and how much we waste.

We’ve been working closely with the hospitality industry, restaurants, retail grocery chains, farmers, and schools. Examining each sector has reinforced an important lesson for me: We can’t fix what we don’t measure. Efforts to accelerate measurement globally across the value chain are stalled because entire sectors still view waste as competitive data to keep private. Companies don’t want to admit they have waste in their operations, or if they’ve figured out how to save money through waste reduction, why would they share that with competitors?

I’ll give you two reasons.

Reason 1: Sharing data can dramatically improve a community’s ability to prevent food waste and establish food rescue operations to feed those in need.  Edible food recovery is all about data – understanding what’s available, where it’s available and how long you have to get it safely to those who need it. If we’re not sharing data on the what-where-when, we’re not nearly as effective as we could be. 

Reason 2: Customers don’t care. Nobody shops at a grocery store or stays at a hotel because of their food waste efficiency. Yes, it can increase profitability, but it’s not a competitive advantage with customers. There are serious benefits, both socially and environmentally, when EVERYONE in the value chain is sharing knowledge and collaborating to reduce waste. Through transparency, we can begin to ‘close the loop’ (which is how nature works) and design cost-effective composting and diversion solutions at scale to benefit everyone. Instead, many communities still stand paralyzed as valuable nutrients that could be building healthy soils get dumped into landfills and emit methane. The current system is absurd, and we need to rebuild it together.  

According to the Global Footprint Network, humans are consuming natural resources (food, fuel, fiber) at a pace that requires 1.7 planets to sustain, and the trend line is going up. We are using more resources than the planet can regenerate. Sustainable Development Goal 12 urges people to sustainably consume our resources and cut our waste in half by 2030. The latter simply can’t happen without global measurement and transparency of waste data. 

For social, environmental, and economic reasons, food loss and waste must be unacceptable. For food businesses, it’s time to put competition aside and join the global campaign to eradicate food waste through reporting and transparency. In grocery stores, we should focus on prevention. For example, zero waste merchandising and better inventory management systems can save billions of dollars in preventable food waste. Progress and accomplishments should be shared, scaled, and accelerated across the industry. 

Regional initiatives like the Pacific Coast Collaborative’s commitment to halve food waste are great examples of multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration on measurement. These public-private sector partnerships have set goals for reduction, now the private sector is being asked to step-up and deliver results. 

Better data can help solve the food waste problem, but only if that information is made available so that we can view challenges through different perspectives, troubleshoot solutions together, and accelerate change. 

If we continue the current food waste trends and don’t start measuring, it is likely my children’s children will live in a world without nature as I know it. I’d rather they grow up in a world without waste.