FAO reflects on the state of food and agriculture

FAO reflects on the state of food and agriculture

February 19, 2020

FAO reflects on the state of food and agriculture

The annual report on the condition of food and agriculture turns the spotlight on food waste and potential solutions to eliminate or at least stem the problem.

I am heartened to see that the whole world is paying more and more attention to the problem of food loss and waste and that it is taking action by asking for stronger actions to combat the problem.” With these words, Qu Dongyu, Director General of the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), introduces the 2019 edition of the report entitled The state of food and agriculture (SOFA), entirely dedicated to analyzing one of the major global challenges of food sustainability: food loss and waste. The issue is so important that it also has a prominent position in the United Nations Agenda 2030 for sustainable development: among the sustainable development goals, target 12.3 in fact aims “to halve the quantity of food thrown away per capita by retailers and consumers and to reduce food waste along production and supply chains by 2030.”  

Figures for the waste

Food waste cannot be effectively combated without fully understanding the problem, starting from its definition. In the report, food loss or waste is considered to be the decrease in the quality and quantity of food along the entire supply chain from producer to final consumer. But we also need clear data on the size of the problem. According to estimates now almost 10 years old, about 1/3 of the food produced is lost or wasted and this figure, albeit generally correct, is a very rough estimate which alone is not enough to fully understand the scenario. Different countries lose or waste food to varying degrees and at specific points in the supply chain: waste is more common in the so-called developed countries, while loss is higher in developing countries. But even within each group there are many differences, as evidenced by the fact that, for example, losses of cereals and legumes are significant in sub-Saharan Africa and in East and South-East Asia, while they are limited in Central and South Asia. It is clear that, without precise information on these details, it is somewhat difficult to implement effective solutions. 

Data under the microscope

Measuring waste is not at all simple: the data available today are often inaccurate or generic and in most cases refer to “average” values which hide even very significant differences within them. Just to give an example, the loss of fruit and vegetables at farm level in sub-Saharan Africa varies from 0 to 50%. How can this waste be measured in detail? Surveys are complex and expensive, so much so that only 39 countries reported official data to FAO on an annual basis from 1990 to 2017. 

Efforts by FAO and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have therefore led to the creation of two indices, which will help to track progress in achieving target 12.3

These are the Food Loss Index e del Food Waste Index which respectively measure food loss and food waste. The SOFA 2019 report shows the data processed thanks to the first of the two indices, from which it emerges that 14% of the food produced in the world is lost before going on sale in stores. “We also worked on the second of the two indices to evaluate wasted food, but the results are not yet available” says the report, which also analyzes the reasons behind loss and wastes, which include unsuitable storage and refrigeration systems, lack of infrastructure, but also the shelf life of products on the market and excessively strict aesthetic standards

To each his own goal

Experts are clear: there is no solution that can be suitable for everyone. “We must be clear why we are trying to reduce waste and what is the real goal behind the main one,” says the introduction to the report. From individual consumers to large companies, all the parties involved may have interests that lead them to pursue the reduction of loss and waste, whether they are the well-being of their family or increased earnings and it is appropriate that all the relevant data are clear and helpful. There are also many barriers to investing in waste reduction, including the difficulties encountered in accessing credit and the lack of clear and comprehensible information. Last, but certainly not least, is an assessment of the social and environmental impact that waste reduction policies can have. “The links between waste reduction and food safety are very complex and a positive outcome is not always guaranteed after an intervention” point out the experts, who then conclude: “ We need highly consistent policies which evaluate all the options and their impact, in order to avoid the promotion of a goal turning into unintentional damage from another point of view.”  

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