Around one-third of all food the world produces is never eaten, even as 800 million people struggle to have enough food. Food loss and waste is an urgent issue for humanity – and for our planet. Food loss and waste uses 25 percent of all water used in agriculture, and if it were its own country it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Liz Goodwin is WRI’s new senior fellow and director of food loss and waste. She previously spent 15 years at the UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), including nine as CEO. Under her leadership, WRAP pioneered the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement to reduce waste within the UK grocery sector, and led the “Love Food, Hate Waste” public awareness campaign. Their leadership led to a 21 percent reduction in food waste in homes across the UK in just five years.
I sat down with Goodwin to hear what motivates her to tackle this challenge, and her views on what’s needed to make a difference.
What drives you to work on this issue?
Liz Goodwin (LG): My motivation in life is to make the world a better place to live for future generations. Our current use of resources is unsustainable. I think we owe it to our children and grandchildren to sort this out and make sure that the world can sustain them as it has done us.
I’m also concerned about fairness. Developing countries naturally want to grow and raise standards of living, but this means more people consuming stuff, and we need to find ways of making this sustainable. In terms of food, it’s awful that we have extremes of poverty and hunger alongside an obesity crisis. We have a moral obligation to try to improve this situation.
I am concerned by the environmental impacts – the wasted water, wasted energy and wasted other resources. I’m concerned by the cost – there are lots of people who struggle to make ends meet, and if they could reduce the amount they waste, they would save money.
Many people would be surprised to realize that a third of food products are lost or wasted. How does this happen?
LG: Food loss and waste affects all of us. For developing countries, the biggest problem is loss and waste through the supply chain – for example, they have surplus food at harvest time and can’t handle all the food before it starts to rot, they need more and better storage, they have problems with distribution.
For developed countries, the biggest issue is waste from households. There are two main reasons: first, we buy too much food and then let it go bad. Second, we cook too much and then have leftovers which we don’t use.
There are many reasons why these things happen. Most people still don’t think they waste food even though the evidence shows that we all do to some extent. We lead busy lives and it’s difficult to plan, and that means we don’t use all the food we planned to use. We’re confused by date labels and knowing when something is safe to eat, and we’ve lost our cooking skills on using food or leftovers. It’s important to remember that in the developed world, the cost of food is a smaller proportion of incomes, and so we are less aware of the cost of the waste – although when you point out the figures to people, they are horrified.
So what can be done?
LG: I think we all have a role to play in improving things.
I try really hard to plan and make sure I know what’s in my fridge. I try to use my freezer to help manage food so it lasts for longer, and so we don’t waste things. I know I could still do better.
I think the retailers have a role to play in helping us understand labels, giving us sensible package sizes, and giving tips on how to use food and what to do with leftovers.
I think that governments have a role to play in ensuring the policy framework supports food waste reduction, such as by making sure there isn’t legislation that encourages people to waste food rather than find a sensible outlet for it.
What lessons have you learned throughout your career?
LG: I’ve learned that you need to be ambitious even if you don’t know quite how something is going to be achieved – set out to do things which people don’t think is possible, and then prove them wrong. People thought we were crazy when we started working with the retailers in the UK on food waste. They said “Why would the retailers want to help consumers reduce food waste if it means they will sell less food?” However, we built other arguments as part of the business case for the retailers. They know that this is something their customers want and which will bring customer loyalty. They also know that some of the money people save will be spent in their stores, either on other products or on higher quality food.
You also need evidence and numbers to convince people, not just qualitative arguments. It was only once we had solid numbers about the amounts of different types of food waste that we got real engagement – because people knew where the hot spots were, and they could focus on tackling specific supply chains or products instead of being generic.
Target 12.3 is the Sustainable Development Goal related to reducing food loss and waste. You are a member of Champions 12.3, a coalition of government, corporate and civil society leaders committed to achieving that target. Where can we see evidence of progress?
LG: Target 12.3 seeks to halve food waste and reduce loss globally by 2030. Champions 12.3 is a fantastic mix of people from all over the world and with different backgrounds and experience. They individually have enormous potential to mobilize change within their country or organization and, collectively, this will result in momentum and progress.
We’re already seeing them take bold measures. Tesco, for example has started reporting food loss and waste figures from across their supply chains for a range of products. It means we know how much is being lost or wasted in specific supply chains, which helps Tesco optimize its actions for improvement.
We are also seeing goals being set. For example, the Consumer Goods Forum's (CGF) Board of Directors has announced a commitment to halving food waste within the retail and manufacturing operations of members by 2025—five years ahead of Target 12.3—against a 2016 baseline. This shows real leadership and means there is a commitment to measurement and action.
If there’s one food loss and waste issue that’s not getting enough attention, what would it be?
LG: There are different issues for each country, but measurement and understanding the scale of the issue is still the single-biggest thing we can work on at present. If you know the size of the problem and where the problem is, then you can focus and do something about it. If you don’t have that information, you could waste a lot of time and energy.
The new Food Loss and Waste Protocol can help with that, in that it provides the first global standard for countries, cities, companies and others to calculate how much loss and waste they’re producing, identify where it’s coming from and set measures to reduce it.