At a younger age, I often had dinner at my grandmother’s house, and often I got to hear exactly this phrase. I imagine there are many who can identify with this memory. Having experienced post-World War II famine, my grandmother’s mind set is not surprising. Nowadays, a growing part of our population is fortunate enough not to be confronted with food scarcity or hunger. Still, there are nearly 800 million undernourished people in the world, and we are facing the additional problem of a steadily growing population. This forces the question of how to feed the world.
Generally, answers to this question suggest increasing productivity. However, looking at the volume of food waste around the world, one could come to a different conclusion. An estimated third of all food produced goes to waste – saving just one-fourth of this amount could feed 870 million hungry people.
Looking closely at the various implications of food loss and food waste, reducing the lavish use of food not only contributes to SDG 2 (zero hunger) but can also help to mitigate climate change (SDG 13), protect life on land (SDG 15) and life below water (SDG 14), decrease water use (SDG 6), boost the economy (SDG 8) and increase the share of renewable energy (SDG 7) through biofuels made out of food that is no longer fit for consumption.
The issue of food waste is addressed under SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production). Target 12.3 calls for halving food waste per capita at retail and consumer level and reducing food losses along the production and supply chains by 2030. Reducing food loss and food waste is also linked to the SDGs on Innovation/Infrastructure (SDG 9) and Education (SDG 4). How to efficiently reduce waste is related to the cause of the waste, which varies between countries.
In developing countries, the majority of food is discarded or lost at the production end of the supply chain, mostly due to poor harvesting methods or problems arising during transportation and storage. Therefore, solutions can be found in investments in innovation, in the agricultural sector and in infrastructure. At the household level each year, only a small portion of food is wasted (6-11 kg per person) in sub-Saharan Africa, south- and south-eastern Asia) compared to a significant increase of food waste at the consumer end in developed countries (95-115 kg per person in Europe). This is caused by a modern consumer culture, which includes poor grocery shopping strategies or a lack of understanding of date-labeling. There is a general loss of connection to how food is produced, which leaves consumers taking for granted that an enormous variety of different foods is available. Providing better education and ensuring access to relevant information and awareness for sustainable development can help to approach food waste at consumer level.
With food waste interlinked with so many SDGs, policy measures should not be taken independently but must acknowledge the different correlations and try to make a connection between the Goals. For instance, the EU has published guidelines to facilitate food donations, which could help to reduce malnutrition among the poor while also fostering the use of former foodstuff and by-products in feed production, which could have positive impacts on biodiversity as there would be less need to grow crops for feed.
At the EU level, the main policy targeting food waste is the Waste Framework Directive, which sets the framework for policy action regarding food waste until 2030. Recent negotiations to revise the policy had a disappointing outcome from the perspective of SDG implementation. According to EURACTIV, the Council of the European Union blocked the path for more ambitious EU action in this area. In its final version, the Waste Framework Directive includes only a vague definition of food waste, and it postpones the introduction of a common EU methodology and legally binding reduction targets.
This state of play endangers the ability of EU member states to meet SDG target 12.3. Figures show that action in this field is urgently required. In addition to a legal framework with binding reduction targets, an approach of a coordinated strategy, that – staying with the EU example – combines EU-wide and national measures, paired with recommendations on how local and regional authorities can help reduce food waste, might reach better results. For instance, urban areas where food is commonly purchased through mass distribution are facing different challenges to tackle food waste than rural areas. A strategy of coordination among the various levels of government would be more sensitive to structural differences, and allows policy measures to adapt to their environments.
After all, the role of the consumer should not be neglected, as unsustainable consuming habits such as modern diet patterns or the elimination of “wonky” foods are inherent in several cultural contexts. Particularly in developed countries, it is important to raise awareness, educate and provide information on how individuals can make their own contribution to reduce food waste.
Cleaning your plate will not stop people elsewhere from starving. But behind this habitual phrase is an important reminder to rediscover a sincere appreciation of food, and to avoid waste. Making a shift towards sustainable development means rethinking our modern consumption behaviour and coming to a life more in harmony with nature.
Author: Mira Piel, Erasmus Student, European School of Political and Social Sciences (ESPOL), Université Catholique de Lille