Emerging tech is transforming food waste into a climate and business opportunity

An estimated 14% of food is lost in the food supply chain from post-harvest up to wholesale. Meanwhile, 17% of food is wasted at retail and consumer level. This food loss and waste costs the global economy over US$1 trillion annually. It is also a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Food loss and waste drives up to 10% of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, yet just a handful of countries mention it in their national climate plans. None of the world’s biggest emitters are on that list,”​ said Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director of Food Loss and Waste at World Resources Institute, which serves as secretariat of food waste collaboration Champions 12.3. “Despite some real bright spots, the world is woefully behind where it needs to be. Without real action to halve food loss and waste, it will be very difficult to solve the climate crisis.”

To address this issue, a coalition of leaders across government, business and civil society have launched a major new initiative to accelerate action to reduce food loss worldwide. Timed to coincide with COP27, the ‘123 Pledge’ challenges governments, businesses, chefs and other important actors in the food system to commit to concrete steps that will make reducing food loss and waste a part of their action agendas on greenhouse gas emissions.

“With the damaging effects climate change has on food security and nutrition, and the negative effects of agrifood systems on climate change and the environment across the world, now is the moment for decisive action to transform how our agrifood systems operate and reduce food loss and waste, providing benefits from both a mitigation and adaptation angle to assure better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life”​ said Máximo Torero Cullen, Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Commitment from all stakeholders – from governments, private sector companies, small producers and civil society to consumers – will be required if we are to make a dent on the issue of FLW and achieve the aspirations of the 2030 Agenda. This is the importance of the #123Pledge and the collaborative efforts championed by the Food Is Never Waste Coalition.”

The ‘123 Pledge’ is coordinated by Champions 12.3, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is also supported by WRAP, WWF, and Rabobank.

“We need action across the supply chain, from farm to fork,”​ said Richard Swannell, Interim CEO WRAP. “Helping citizens and companies reduce food loss and waste has never been more salient given the global food crises we are all facing. WRAP will work with governments, businesses and people to reduce costly food waste at home and across the supply chain as part of our shared global ambition to reduce the enormous contribution food waste makes to climate change, and keeping 1.5 alive.”

The Pledge is working toward a worldwide goal of halving food loss and waste by 2030. Companies that sign up must commit to timebound and measurable action, with annual reports detailing progress.

Regulatory pressure ‘changing the narrative’ on food waste

This aligns with a broader trend noted by the Sustainable and Thematic Investing Team at Barclays, with greater pressure on actors in the food chain to take concrete action on food waste. Regulators in Asia and Europe are taking a tougher line on food waste – an environment that, analyst Laia Marin i Sola says, is changing the narrative.

“We believe global policy momentum driven mainly by mandatory recycling and collection in Europe… or by commercial fines, for example, in China, is helping companies to view food waste as a key input for other technologies,”​ Marin said. “Companies remain under increased pressure to measure, disclose and take action on food waste given tighter regulation… Emerging technologies have completely transformed the value of food waste and we see this as a critical input for the scaling of sustainable technologies.”

Barclays has modelled a framework of four ‘preferred pathways’ for food waste upcycling. The ranking is based on the dual aims of minimising food waste and an assessment of the potential end products have to relieve current pressures in the food system. Animal feed and insect proteins are seen as having greatest potential; followed by rendering (advanced biofuels, fertilisers and animal and pet feed ingredients); anaerobic digestion (biomethane); and sustainable materials (bio-plastics and bio-textiles).

However, Marin noted, ‘not all destinations for food waste are viewed in the same way’. She believes that the current focus on energy policy is likely to favour the advanced biofuel producers. “With so much policy tension being placed on energy we believe other developing technologies – animal and pet feed insect protein and sustainable materials – might suffer unintended consequences through bearing higher input costs and receiving insufficient investment to achieve scale as a result.”

‘Rapidly increasing’ competition for food waste

Indeed, Barclays expects increased competition for food waste as an input to push prices up as these emerging technologies move to scale. “We see the potential for tightness of supply and inadequate collection infrastructure to translate into higher input prices and margin pressure at the company level.”

With so much food wasted, how is this possible? Quite simply, the infrastructure needed to collect and recycle food waste does not currently exist. “Supply is tight given collection infrastructure remains insufficient,”​ Marin stressed.

“Emerging technology will increasingly be able to support the reuse of food waste as a critical input for many sustainable technologies. However in the short term competition for food waste and higher prices might translate to additional margin pressure at the portfolio level.”

As part of the 123 Pledge, unveiled today, a number of fresh food waste commitments have been announced.

  1. The Government of The Netherlands has committed to make an active effort to make the Farm-to-Fork strategy more ambitious at EU level. Now the Farm-to Fork Strategy aims to reduce food waste at consumption and retail level. The Netherlands will make an effort, within the EU to achieve the goal of reducing food loss and waste in the entire food chain, under the Farm to Fork Strategy, which is at the heart of the European Green Deal.
  2. Unilever has committed to continue to focus on halving food waste in its direct operations by 2025. Its Hellmann’s brand will inspire and enable 100 million consumers every year till 2025 to be more resourceful with their food at home and waste less. They are expanding the geographical scope of their consumer-facing program covering North America, Latin America and Europe with country focus on US, CA, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, UK, Spain, Greece.
  3. Rabobank has committed to execute a new series of Food Waste Challenges in 2023 to help 75 foodservice clients in The Netherlands with an average of 35% food waste reduction. It’s part of Rabobank’s – a food and agriculture bank operating in this sector for 125 years – belief that reducing food loss and waste is one of the top three levers to reduce carbon emissions and is important work toward a dream of a net positive food system.
  4. World Resources Institute has committed to work through Champions 12.3 with farmer-facing companies to engage 200,000 smallholder farmers to start to tackle on-farm and near-farm food losses by the end of 2024, with a longer term goal of those farmers halving farm and near-farm losses by 2030.
  5. WWF has committed to leveraging its global network of offices to influence governments and industries to immediately meet the call to action.
  6. WRAP has pledged to deliver food loss and waste projects aligned with the Pledge impact areas in countries with a combined population of over one billion by the year 2030.
  7. Too Good to Go has committed to 1) encouraging and supporting governments in 10 countries to shape and improve food waste policy measures through its public affairs engagement; rescuing 1 billion Magic Bags of surplus food from going to waste through its mobile app; and 3) raising food waste awareness with 250 million consumers through its awareness campaigns focused on date labelling, school food waste and more.
  8. Costa Rican FLW Network commits to improve its efforts in food loss and waste awareness, research and networking, resulting in at least three successful intervention cases by 2025, as expressed as a percentage of food loss and waste reduction – and its equivalent emissions – to be shared and scaled.
  9. LeanPath has committed to working with its client partners to prevent an amount of food waste equivalent to 50 million meals by 2025.
  10. Steven M. Finn has committed to developing graduate level course and webinar/blog content to raise awareness and directly educate hundreds of citizens by the end of 2025 on the scope and scale of the food waste challenge, the critical linkage between food waste and the SDGs, and solutions and change initiatives to accelerate food waste reduction in line with Target 12.3.

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