By putting a stop to food waste, we can combat climate change, reduce biodiversity loss and feed the world. And the good news is: the solutions are out there. In order to implement them, we need a systemic shift, both in our thoughts and actions. Dutch expert Toine Timmermans tells us all about it: “To feed the world, we don’t need to produce more; we need to waste less.”
Over the last twenty years, Toine Timmermans from the Dutch Wageningen University & Research Centre has been researching how we can reduce food waste globally. Despite witnessing some small changes, according to Toine, the big transition has yet to happen. “When I started, food waste was a completely new topic. Companies were aware of their spillage, but as long as it was not affecting their financial growth, they did not really care. Even though nowadays societal interest has sparked, it still remains extremely difficult to get the topic on the political agenda. For example, no country in the world has formally identified the link between cutting food waste and reaching its climate goals. And that whilst it is the most effective climate solution according to project Drawdown.”
In Europe, 25 percent of food is being wasted. Globally, it is a third.
Besides combating climate change, food waste reduction is a great way to halt biodiversity loss. Toine: “In many places, we cut down precious rainforest to grow soy for cattle. Whilst in Northern Europe alone, every year millions of tons of food are wasted that are perfectly suitable for animal feed. It is time we start capitalizing on these types of opportunities.”
The claim is that by 2050, we need to produce 60 to 70 percent more food to feed the growing world population. But the truth is that we are already producing enough food to feed 12 billion people right now.
In order to do so, we need a systemic approach to the problems at hand. “If we manage to go beyond end-of-pipe solutions, and start to address the root causes of food waste, we can produce less food to feed more people”, Toine explains. “At the moment, we already produce enough food to feed 12 billion people. Just too much of it is wasted. And with it the land, water, energy, CO2 and other resources needed for production and distribution.”
Less is more
In order to discover how we can shift people’s attitudes and turn using everything into the new norm, Toine embarked on a scientific mission. Together with a group of scientists, he published a report on how countries can effectively fight food waste. “When you look at food waste in Europe, fifty percent of it happens with consumers at home. But this is not just the consumer’s fault. In fact, much of the spillage occurs because businesses are constantly urging people to buy more, whether they need it or not. To fix this, national governments need to act.”
It is time companies start to use data and artificial intelligence to make their production systems more flexible. This way, they can predict and respond to consumer demands, which means they have to produce less.
Besides setting national targets and making sure food waste is on the political agenda, Toine found it is crucial for governments to focus on creating a positive social norm. “Instead of saying that food waste is bad, the focus needs to be on showing that utilizing food is a positive thing.”
The role of cities
Next to national governments, Toine firmly believes cities have an important role to play. “Most cities are turning their food waste into energy. Of course, it is better than nothing, but it is still an end-of-pipe solution. Therefore, cities that are serious about becoming carbon neutral should focus on actively addressing food waste at the source by doing research and setting targets. How much food goes into my city? And what subsequently happens to it? Once you know what is going on, you can create a roadmap for change.”
It is all about prevention. For every euro of food waste you prevent, it gains society 50 to 100 euros in positive benefits.
In order to successfully prevent food waste in urban areas, city governments should focus on awareness and commitment. “Engage with local communities who are already trying to build a better food system”, Toine says. “Then the next step is to work together to create a positive social norm, so that people feel excited to be part of the zero food waste movement. For example, by setting up systems that enable urban dwellers to participate in food waste battles with their family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.”
Food producing cities
Bringing sustainable food production back to the city is another key component. “Especially for very perishable products like salads and herbs, short supply chains are a great way to prevent wastage during transport”, Toine explains. “Also, by producing food in or around cities, you heighten people’s awareness on what it takes to produce food, which encourages them not to waste but cherish it.”
Lastly, we should not underestimate the power of education. Toine: “It is very inspirational to work with young children, because they bring the message home and start educating their parents. So education definitely does not only have a positive long term, but also a positive short term impact.”
If we succeed in combating food waste both in- and outside cities, according to Toine, we will find ourselves in a completely different world. “It would mean that everybody is aware and that businesses are asking the right questions. In restaurants, for example, you would no longer have standardized portions, but food would be tailored to your specific needs. And cities would be fully circular systems, where all byproducts are used in the best possible way. Also, when zero food waste is the norm, food is distributed better and shared widely amongst communities. So without food waste, the world would not just be better off ecologically, but also socially.”
Looking for more inspiration on zero waste cities? Check out this story featuring ‘De Clique’.