Like far too many international endeavors launched with high hopes and much vigor, the “Save Food” campaign of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has seen much of its fire dimmed as global supply-demand changes have recently calmed markets. This does not mean the efforts undertaken by the F.A.O. in 2011, first to measure and then to reduce global food production that does not actually feed people, have come to naught. According to the F.A.O., which has assumed leadership for this undertaking, more than 150 public and private sector “partners,” including major food companies, have aligned their related activities with U.N. agencies like the World Food Programme “to find new approaches to improving the efficiency of the world’s food system.” No matter how skeptical one may be about the power of such a grand international undertaking, the goal of focusing on improving efficiency has to have won nearly universal agreement to seeking to do something.
It is the vastness of the enterprise that also accounts for its slow start, even when a leading global food retailer like Wal-Mart commits itself and its purchasing to supporting this endeavor. Important to appreciating the potential of “Save Food” is remembering how the program got its start. It was a private industry group, made up of food packaging manufacturers, that went to the F.A.O. several years ago to suggest the need for a study to measure food loss and food waste. This had been selected as the theme for its 2011 international trade fair. From the start, “loss” was defined largely as what occurred between the time seeds were planted in developing countries and crops were harvested. “Waste” was the loss experienced mainly in developed nations between foods being processed, sold at retail and used in the home.
The global loss and waste figures were staggeringly large, exceeding projections by pessimistic observers. In developing countries, 30% to 40% of food crops are lost before entering marketing channels. Up to 50% of root crops as well as fruit and vegetables are lost, while oilseeds and grain losses are at the lower 20% level. Shopping habits, aesthetic sensibilities and “throw-away-mindsets” are cited as the main cause of waste in industrialized countries. Waste in Europe and North America is estimated as equivalent to 10 kilograms per person per month, an average not even reached in a year by consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and in South and Southeast Asia.
For a total world estimate, the F.A.O. came up with 1.3 billion tonnes of food with a value of more than $1 trillion lost or wasted each year. Referencing the estimate that 870 million people do not have enough to eat, the U.N. agency said this food shortage could be eliminated by saving only one-quarter of what is now lost or wasted.
Several specific steps have been put forward to relieve the current situation. Most fundamental is assuring that supply and demand are in balance to reduce the volume of crops grown and allowed to rot for lack of market. Most interesting here was the recommendation from the French minister of agriculture who told an F.A.O. conference that adding storage capacity and expanding processing facilities should help.
“Resolving food issues globally means producing, but also processing and storing what is produced,” noted Stephane Le Foll, the minister. Next is promoting environmentally-minded food retailing mainly by changing retail marketing techniques. Third is assuring that surplus food is made available to hungry people or if inedible is used in a way that allows the energy and nutritional content to be put to the best use.
The “Save Food” campaign makes good sense, even though some aspects are easier to implement than others. Just because pressures from sharply rising prices have eased is no reason to stop looking for ways to enhance the global food system’s efficiency. Hardly any international campaign merits more support than this.