Last week I had the pleasure of participating in Feeding the 5000-DC, a huge event where food that otherwise would have been thrown away was cooked up and fed to citizens of Washington, D.C. Just like a similar event in New York City a week earlier (which reached 10,000 meals), thousands of people showed up. And thousands of delicious meals were served, made from misshapen vegetables, unsold rice, stems, and other perfectly edible but typically wasted food bits.

Events like Feeding the 5000 convince me that we are on the upward swing of a growing movement. It’s a movement that realizes that something dramatic needs to be done to stop the travesty of food loss and waste for the sake of people and the planet.

Champions of a Cause

Feeding the 5000 is the brainchild of Tristram Stuart, founder of the NGO Feedback. Stuart is one of Champions 12.3, a unique coalition of leaders from government, the private sector and civil society dedicated to inspiring ambition, mobilizing action and accelerating progress toward achieving Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This target seeks to halve food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030, while also reducing food loss along production and supply chains.

From left to right: Andrew Steer (WRI), Tristam Stuart (Feedback), and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Photo by Craig Hanson/WRI
From left to right: Andrew Steer (WRI), Tristram Stuart (Feedback), and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Photo by Craig Hanson/WRI

Quite a few fellow Champions also played roles in the Washington and New York events. Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), donned a chef’s apron and demonstrated recipes for gazpacho and a tomato sandwich, using unsold tomatoes. WRI’s Andrew Steer reminded the audience of the significance of the challenge (see the list of facts below). And organizations led by other Champions helped support the events, including Judith Rodin of The Rockefeller Foundation, Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Achim Steiner of UNEP and Rhea Suh of NRDC.

From Problem to Solutions

By now you may have already read some of the big numbers about food loss and waste:

  • An estimated one-third of all food is lost or wasted from farm to fork every year globally;
  • This amounts to about $940 billion per year in economic losses;
  • Lost and wasted food consumes one-quarter of all the water used by agriculture;
  • It requires land area the size of China to grow; and
  • It contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter, behind China and the United States.

What we need now are solutions. Here are three starter ideas I think would help accelerate action on reducing food loss and waste:

1) Set targets.

The first step is for countries, cities and companies to set food loss and waste reduction targets consistent with SDG Target 12.3. Targets set ambition, and ambition motivates action. Countries like the United States are already leading in this regard, with the USDA and US EPA setting the nation’s first-ever food waste goal—a 50 percent reduction by 2030. The leaders of these two agencies are truly Champions of SDG Target 12.3.

Industry associations are also are setting targets. The Consumer Goods Forum—representing 400 retailers, manufacturers and service providers across 70 countries—has resolved to reduce food waste from member operations by 50 percent by 2025.

Wouldn’t it be great if all major U.S. cities set their own reduction targets?

2) Measure to manage.

Second, the old adage that “what gets measured gets managed” should be applied to food loss and waste.

Most countries, cities and companies currently do not quantify how much or where food is being lost or wasted. Moreover, there is a lack of consensus on the definition of food loss and waste, as well as challenges in how to measure it.

Measuring food loss and waste, however, is becoming easier. Just three weeks from now, WRI along with UNEP, the FAO, WBCSD, the Consumer Goods Forum, EU FUSIONS and WRAP will launch the Food Loss and Waste Protocol. The Protocol will provide internationally consistent definitions, credible methods for quantifying food loss and waste, and transparent approaches for reporting results.

3) Take action.

Finally, we all need to take action. In countries the United States, this means things like:

  • Making it easier for safe, unsold food to get onto the plates of those in need;
  • Standardizing food date labeling practices so people don’t throw away safe, edible food;
  • Reducing portion sizes; and
  • Encouraging retailers to supply, and consumers to eat, food too often considered “imperfect” (think bumpy tomatoes or misshapen strawberries). Ugly food is beautiful—and nutritious—to eat!

Target, measure, act. Following the inspiration of Feeding the 5000, let’s aspire toward a world where no more food goes to waste!