This post is the third installment of WRI’s blog series, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” The series explores strategies to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050. All pieces are based on research being conducted for the 2013-2014 World Resources Report.

An amazing 24 percent of all food calories produced today go uneaten. Reducing this loss and waste is a critical step toward generating enough food for a population set to reach more than 9 billion by 2050.

Fortunately, there are low-cost methods that can begin saving food immediately in both the developing and the developed world. WRI’s new working paper, Reducing Food Loss and Waste, identifies a number of these strategies. Some methods cut loss “close to the farm,” while others reduce waste “close to the fork.”

Reducing Food Loss Close to the Farm

Improved storage methods

Simple, low-cost storage methods can drastically cut food loss, especially for small-scale farmers in the developing world, who frequently lose food to factors like pests, spoilage, and transportation damage. For example, a system developed by researchers at Purdue University in which grain is stored in three interlocking plastic bags locks out pests and keeps grain fresh for months. The Food and Agriculture Organization has built more than 45,000 small, metal storage silos—just big enough for use by a single farmer—in 16 different countries. These silos have cut food loss during the storage phase to almost zero. Even using a plastic crate instead of a plastic sack during transport can cut loss dramatically by preventing bruising and squashing.

Redistribute food

Some perfectly good food just never gets eaten. It might be because a farmer can’t afford to harvest an entire field, or because a grocer has ordered too much of an item and can’t sell it all. One way to reduce this type of food loss and waste is to simply redistribute food by giving it to food banks and similar outreach groups. An Australian organization called SecondBite, for example, redirected to community food banks 3,000 metric tons worth of food in 2012 that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Reducing Food Waste Close to the Fork

Better food date labels

Confusion around “use-by,” “sell-by,” “best-before,” and other date labels can lead people to throw out food that is still perfectly good to eat. For example, one survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in the United Kingdom found that one-fifth of food thrown out by households was incorrectly perceived as being out of date due to confusing labels.

Retailers can alleviate confusion by removing certain date labels, such as “sell-by” dates in the United States, which only convey information to the retailer. Tesco, for example, has piloted a program in which “display until” dates are removed from packages, leaving only a “use by” date. The grocer found that this change has been well-received by customers and also leads to less waste at the store level.

Reduce portion sizes

Huge portion sizes at restaurants and buffets can lead to large amounts of food waste, as people are unable to finish the meals they order. Restaurants can reduce this type of waste—and their own operating costs—by offering smaller sizes of menu items.

There are also some more creative ways to cut this type of waste. For example, Michigan’s Grand Valley State University introduced a tray-less system in its cafeterias. Because students could no longer load up trays with food, the University found that over the course of a year, each student was wasting about 56 pounds of food fewer than the year before, or about 28,000 fewer pounds overall.

Launch consumer awareness campaigns

Consumer awareness campaigns reveal how much food people actually waste and provide simple solutions for cutting down on that waste. Grocers can play a part in these initiatives. For example, stores run by The Co-operative Group in the UK print storage tips for fruits and vegetables directly on their plastic produce bags. Initiatives such as cooking classes and information displays sponsored by local governments and community groups can also provide consumers with information that helps reduce waste.

5 Cross-cutting Ways to Prevent Food Loss and Waste

Although these initiatives can all help reduce food loss and waste immediately and cost-effectively, the global community will also need to take some bigger, cross-cutting steps to tackle this issue. WRI’s new working paper identifies five key recommendations:

  1. Develop a food loss and waste measurement protocol: What gets measured gets managed. A global “food loss and waste protocol” could provide companies and countries with a standardized way to measure and monitor food loss and waste.
  2. Set food loss and waste reduction targets: Setting time-bound targets inspires action by raising awareness, focusing attention, and mobilizing resources. Targets at the global, national, sub-national, and business levels will help spur action on reducing food loss and waste. For example, the European Union has announced a target of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2050.
  3. Increase investment in reducing post-harvest losses in developing countries: A great deal of food loss in developing countries happens “close to the farm,” but only about 5 percent of agricultural research funding goes toward minimizing post-harvest losses. Doubling this amount of funding would be a huge step in the right direction.
  4. Create entities devoted to reducing food waste in developed countries: WRAP is a good model of this sort of entity. The organization is independent of the national government, but works closely with business and governments on waste reduction. For example, it works with manufacturers to minimize waste during factory processes, convenes voluntary agreements with grocery retailers to reduce in-store waste, and conducts consumer awareness campaigns to educate the public about household food waste.
  5. Accelerate and support collaborative initiatives to reduce food loss and waste: International initiatives such as SAVE FOOD and Think.Eat.Save bring together a wide range of actors like private businesses, governments, and intergovernmental organizations to tackle food loss and waste. These initiatives provide a space for inspiring action, effective collaboration, and sharing of best practices.

A War on Food Waste and Loss

By 2050, the world will need about 60 percent more calories per year in order to feed 9 billion people. Cutting current food loss and waste levels in half would shrink the size of this food gap by 22 percent.

The world faced an analogous situation in the 1970s with the energy crisis. In the face of record oil prices and growing demand, several industrialized nations essentially declared war on energy wastefulness, significantly improving their energy efficiency. A “war on waste” has yet to be waged when it comes to food. Given that food prices have hit historic highs and global demand continues to rise, now is the time to start slashing food waste and loss.