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Our Enduring Focus on Food Waste and Loss Reduction

Three people inspecting mangoes in an African market
Luke Wafula (taking notes). Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange Market Information Point (MIP) for trade and marketing of commodities.

Last month, I had the honor of attending the Conference on Food Waste and Loss Reduction, hosted at the Vatican by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences along with The Rockefeller Foundation.

As His Holiness Pope Francis reminds us, food waste is a symptom of our broader “throwaway culture,” a way of life that destroys our earth and blinds us to the needs and value of human life.

To address that problem, The Rockefeller Foundation first took on the challenge of reducing food loss and waste in 2015, when we launched our global Yieldwise initiative.

With Yieldwise, we had two initial goals:

  • First, to raise awareness about the crisis of food waste, and the tremendous losses that wasted food represents in a world where hundreds of millions of people still go to bed hungry at night.
  • Second, to provide the field – and the policymakers, food businesses, producers and households that we hoped would listen – with not only models demonstrating that reducing food waste was possible, but also the tools to take those models to scale.

Over the last four years, we have accomplished much to be proud of – and we’ve learned important lessons about the causes and solutions that exist in both low- and high-income countries.

  • In East Africa, we have achieved a post-harvest lost reduction of 20 to 30 percent across critical value chains, and impacted the lives of more than 300,000 farmers.
  • In the United States, our partners have engaged more than 30 U.S. cities in food waste prevention programs and identified more than 100 million pounds of surplus food per year that can be rescued and redistributed to American families.

Meanwhile, working with nations and international organizations across Africa, we have brought together countries and communities to expand tangible commitments to reducing food loss and waste.

Through these and other efforts, together we have planted post-harvest loss firmly on the global agenda. The evidence is everywhere.

And the movement is growing. In September, 25 corporations, including some of the world’s largest food retailers like Walmart, Tesco, and Kroger, commit to halving food waste in their operations by 2030.

The issue featured prominently in the landmark World Resource Institute report that we supported, “Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Setting a Global Agenda,” which attracted considerable attention when it was released in August – garnering more than 270 news articles around the world.

Sara Farley, Managing Director, and Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President both for the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation speaking at the Conference on Food Waste and Loss Reduction, hosted at the Vatican by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences along with the Foundation.

Also worth considering: the World Bank’s $1.8 billion – and growing – Sustainable Development Bond to address food loss and food waste, which was developed with support from The Rockefeller Foundation. The phenomenal success of this bond proves there is tremendous interest from capital markets, investors, and private sector actors to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals, and especially the issue of reducing food loss and waste.

Without a doubt, we have made tremendous progress.

Our Food initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation will be focused on increasing the global consumption of “protective foods”.

And yet, despite that progress, it is clear that our food system is still failing humanity – it is bankrupting our health, burning up the planet we call home, and over-burdening our economies.

According to the latest data from the Global Burden of Disease report, the food we eat – and especially the food we don’t eat – is the single greatest risk factor for premature death in the world today.

Our diets make both people and the planet sick. The global food and agricultural sector creates one-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

And the health and environmental consequences of our food system are costly.  Malnutrition as a whole costs the world $3.5 trillion dollars every year, and obesity alone is estimated to cost $760 billion dollars on a yearly basis by 2025.

These problems are systemic; they cannot be solved exclusively by reducing food loss and waste.  And that’s why The Rockefeller Foundation is taking our food work in a new direction.

Going forward, our Food initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation will be focused on increasing the global consumption of “protective foods” – the fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains that are radically under-consumed today, but that if we eat more of them can have tremendous positive impact on the health of both people and planet.

Ultimately, it is our goal to increase access to “protective foods” and improve health outcomes for millions of people around the globe.

While we are changing the direction of our work, our belief in the importance of fighting food waste is undiminished, particularly because the most nutritious foods usually suffer from the highest levels of waste. We continue to believe that the best day for the food-loss-and-waste movement will be its last day.

Today, we have a throwaway culture. But I also believe tomorrow demands an even more radical change.

Tomorrow demands a culture that feeds the hundreds of millions who go hungry today with the equally enormous quantity of food that goes wasted.

I realize that kind of “tomorrow” feels different from the road much of the world is on, but I also believe it is a future that’s within our reach.

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