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  • Human Rights Research Center

Global Food Waste and the Right to Food

April 17, 2024



Introduction


This article explores the intricate issue of food waste from a global perspective, highlighting its profound environmental implications. Food waste constitutes a significant portion of the world's environmental footprint, contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion. Despite heightened awareness and increasing efforts to address the problem, food waste remains a pervasive issue across the globe, affecting both developed and developing countries alike.


Before diving into the issue, we need to understand the multifaceted nature of food waste, which occurs at various stages of the food supply chain, from production and distribution to consumption and disposal. The complex interplay of factors that contribute to food waste, including economic incentives, consumer behavior, and supply chain inefficiencies are important as well. These factors often result in the disposal of perfectly edible food, exacerbating food insecurity and inequality.


This article then examines the environmental, social, and economic consequences of food waste, underscoring its detrimental impact on global food security, environmental sustainability, and economic stability. It argues that reducing food waste is not only essential for mitigating these impacts but also for achieving broader sustainable development goals, including ending hunger, promoting responsible consumption and production, and combating climate change.


Finally, this paper will explore various strategies and initiatives aimed at addressing food waste on a global scale, such as food recovery and redistribution programs, policy interventions, and public awareness campaigns. It highlights the importance of adopting a holistic approach to food waste reduction that involves collaboration among governments, businesses, civil society organizations, and consumers.


How food security is a human right


Food insecurity refers to the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It's a multifaceted issue influenced by various factors such as poverty, unemployment, low wages, limited access to nutritious foods, and inadequate social safety nets. Food insecurity can manifest in different ways, including hunger, malnutrition, and reliance on low-quality or insufficient diets.

Food security is recognized as a fundamental human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states in Article 25(1) that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food." Subsequent international agreements, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), further affirm the right to adequate food.


Ensuring food security is not just a matter of providing food aid or charity; it requires addressing underlying issues of poverty, inequality, and social injustice. Governments have a primary responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food by implementing policies and programs that promote equitable access to food, support sustainable food production and distribution systems, and address the root causes of food insecurity. Additionally, international cooperation and assistance are crucial for supporting countries in achieving food security goals, particularly in regions facing chronic food insecurity and humanitarian crises.


In summary, food security is indeed a human right, essential for realizing other rights such as the right to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. By addressing the underlying determinants of food insecurity and upholding the right to food, societies can work towards building a more equitable and sustainable food system that ensures everyone has access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food.


Causes of Food Waste


Food waste is primarily driven by spoilage and exceeding expiration dates, with reasons for disposal including moldy produce, expired items, leftovers from meals, and excessive food preparation. These practices are exacerbated by poor planning, bulk purchasing, and inadequate infrastructure for transportation and storage. Developed nations, along with industrialized countries like Japan, South Korea, and China, account for a significant portion of global food loss and waste, with approximately 40% occurring during the consumption stage due to consumer behaviors and attitudes. Notably, the amount of food waste in these regions nearly matches the total net production in Sub-Saharan African countries.


Impact of Food Waste


The environmental repercussions of food waste extend across its entire life cycle, encompassing not only the emissions associated with waste treatment, such as methane from landfills, but also those generated during earlier stages, including unnecessary emissions from the food production chain. Despite the existence of numerous international standards and guidelines aimed at addressing these issues, a universally approved method for evaluating the climate impacts of food products remains elusive. This lack of standardization complicates efforts to quantify and compare the environmental footprint of food waste across different regions and contexts.


To address this gap, efforts have been made to estimate the climate impacts of household food waste based on food type categories, drawing from a variety of data sources. These estimations aim to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the environmental consequences of food waste on a global scale. By categorizing food waste according to its type and origin, researchers can better assess its impact on greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental indicators.

Substantial amounts of unconsumed food have significant adverse effects on the environment, society, and economy. Estimates indicate that 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to uneaten food. Furthermore, the impact of food waste extends beyond its immediate environmental consequences to encompass broader economic and social dimensions. For example, reducing food waste has the potential to yield substantial cost savings for households, businesses, and governments, while also addressing issues of food insecurity and social inequality.


In addition to its climate impact, food waste poses significant challenges in terms of resource depletion, soil degradation, and water pollution. The disposal of food waste in landfills exacerbates these problems by releasing methane and other harmful gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and air pollution. Moreover, the production of food itself requires significant resources, including land, water, and energy, making the wasteful disposal of food a doubly unsustainable practice.




Food Waste Along the Supply Chain


Food waste occurs at different stages of the food chain, from agricultural production to distribution, retail and final consumption.




Households:

  • Make shopping lists and meal plans.

  • Understand date label terminology.

  • Optimize refrigerator temperature.

  • Efficiently use freezer space.

Restaurants:

  • Monitor and manage food usage.

  • Train staff and avoid oversized portions.

  • Simplify menu to better predict orders.

Retailers:

  • Improve stocking practices and staff training.

  • Educate customers and provide storage advice on packaging.

Food Producers:

  • Enhance farming practices and customer communication.

Food Distributors:

  • Optimize handling, storage, and transportation.

  • Utilize technology for traceability and shelf-life maximization.

Processors and Manufacturers:

  • Implement technical solutions and standardize date labeling.

Governments and Policymakers:

  • Develop educational programs and policies promoting efficiency in food production and distribution.

  • Promote fair trading practices and food redistribution.

  • Establish date labeling standards and food loss reporting requirements.


Global and Local Initiatives and Examples


New collaborative initiatives are emerging to combat food waste by implementing comprehensive strategies. By fostering cooperation among stakeholders across the food supply chain, these efforts can play a pivotal role in addressing the global challenge of food waste while promoting environmental sustainability and ensuring food security for all. For example:


  1. Eco-friendly food fridges: A Geneva-based initiative installs free-access public refrigerators on city streets, allowing people to share perishable food items that would otherwise go to waste. Similar initiatives exist in other Swiss cities and were inspired by schemes in Germany.

  2. Rescuing ‘imperfect’ fruit and veg: In Australia, misshapen or blemished fruits and vegetables rejected by large retailers are now repurposed into cut-price subscription boxes, reducing food waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

  3. Hydroponic agriculture: Saudi Arabia utilizes hydroponic agriculture to produce fresh foods locally, reducing reliance on imports and minimizing food waste by delivering produce quickly from harvest to consumer.

  4. Farm-gate sourcing and processing: In Asia, solar-powered equipment salvages wasted crops, turning them into non-perishable ingredients sold to the food and beverage sector, reducing food waste and supporting small-holder farmers.

  5. On-site food waste composter: In Malaysia, specially formulated composters convert organic waste into compost, neutralizing odors and preventing the spread of bacteria and diseases.

  6. Microbial sticker that protects fruit: Protective stickers coated in a plant-based antimicrobial substance extend the shelf-life of fruit by up to two weeks, reducing the need for harmful chemicals and preserving fruit products.

  7. Dynamic pricing app for fresh produce: An AI-powered pricing app helps supermarkets reduce food waste by dynamically pricing perishable items based on freshness, resulting in decreased waste and increased sales.


Conclusion


In conclusion, addressing food waste is imperative for environmental sustainability, economic stability, and food security worldwide. Despite efforts to combat it, food waste remains a pervasive issue driven by various factors across the supply chain. The environmental impact of food waste is significant, contributing to climate change, resource depletion, and pollution. Moreover, it poses economic challenges and exacerbates social inequalities.


 

Glossary


  • Spoilage: The process of food becoming unfit for consumption due to deterioration.

  • Expiration dates: Dates printed on food packaging indicating the last date by which the food should be consumed.

  • Moldy: Covered or affected by mold, a fungus that grows on organic matter.

  • Bulk purchasing: Buying goods in large quantities, often at a reduced price per unit.

  • Infrastructure: The basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

  • Estimations: Approximations or educated guesses based on available information.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: Gases released into the atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

  • Soil degradation: The decline in soil quality, often caused by erosion, depletion of nutrients, or contamination.

  • Hydroponic agriculture: A method of growing plants without soil, using nutrient-rich water solutions instead.

  • Microbial: Related to microorganisms, such as bacteria or fungi.

  • Dynamic pricing: Pricing strategy where the price of a product or service changes in real-time based on supply, demand, or other factors.

  • Food security: The state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

  • Comprehensive: Complete, including all or nearly all elements or aspects of something.


 

Sources


  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food Wastage Footprint—Impacts on Natural Resources, 2013. Available online: https://www.fao.org/3/i3347e/i3347e.pdf.

  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). International Day of Awareness on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Available online: https://www.un.org/en/observances/end-food-waste-day/background.

  3. Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R., Meybeck, A., 2011. Global Food Losses and Food Waste. Extent, Causes and Prevention. Rome.

  4. Katajajuuri, J. M., Silvennoinen, K., Hartikainen, H., Heikkilä, L., & Reinikainen, A. (2014). Food waste in the Finnish food chain. Journal of cleaner production, 73, 322-329.

  5. Papargyropoulou, E., Lozano, R., Steinberger, J. K., Wright, N., & bin Ujang, Z. (2014). The food waste hierarchy as a framework for the management of food surplus and food waste. Journal of cleaner production, 76, 106-115.

  6. Schanes, K., Dobernig, K., & Gözet, B. (2018). Food waste matters-A systematic review of household food waste practices and their policy implications. Journal of cleaner production, 182, 978-991.

  7. World Economic Forum. 7 innovative solutions for fighting food waste, 2023. Available online: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2023/12/innovations-to-reduce-food-waste/.

  8. World Resources Institute (WRI). The Global Benefits of Reducing Food Loss and Waste, and How to Do It, 2023. Available online: https://www.wri.org/insights/reducing-food-loss-and-food-waste.

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