With the Christmas and New Year holidays now behind us, many people are probably thinking about resolutions for the year ahead. If you are stuck for ideas, recently published figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) may help. They estimate that globally, food waste and loss is costing us approximately US$750 billion each year. This staggering amount is even more astounding when you consider that food production reportedly consumes approximately 25% of all water used in agriculture worldwide and requires a cropland area the size of Mexico. As if that isn’t bad enough, 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are generated each year as a result from food that is produced but not eaten.

These figures and findings have been published in the Land Use chapter of The New Climate Economy Report 2015. The chapter begins with a discussion on the changing reality of agriculture and forestry around the world. This reality includes factors such as population growth, resource scarcity, and the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Supply-side strategies to increase agricultural productivity through new technologies are also reviewed; with an analysis of demand-side measures that reduce pressure on natural resources, including ways to minimise food loss and waste. The natural capital of forests, trends in deforestation, forest degradation, and ways to scale up positive change are all discussed in this chapter, concluding with a series of recommendations.

The Land Use chapter does not pull any punches in the six main points it covers. The first point is that rapid population growth and urbanisation are among the factors crucial to food security and livelihoods. Thus, the suggestion is for decision makers to make agriculture a top priority for economic and environmental policies, particularly in developing countries. Secondly, agricultural productivity must increase to keep up with food demand by addressing drought, resistance to pests and salt, and increasing R+D funds.

The third main point calls for policy interventions to facilitate the adoption of new technologies and practices among small landholders. At a Government level, climate change adaptation finance, agricultural insurance schemes, and more secure property rights are examples of the interventions that should be considered. New approaches to farming are also required to maintain the integrity of ecosystem services and to overcome market failures.

One quarter of the world’s food on a caloric basis is lost or wasted between the farm and the fork

 The fourth point raised is that one quarter of the world’s food on a caloric basis is lost or wasted between the farm and the fork – this means one out of every four food calories intended for human consumption is ultimately not consumed. To counteract this, demand-side measures are needed to address the negative environmental and economic impacts of such wasteful expenditure.

The next point refers to how waste reduction measures in developed countries could save $US200 billion and reduce GHG emissions by 0.3 Gigatonnes each year. The report encourages policy makers to work towards reducing the demand for food crops as biofuels, and to promote a dietary shift away from red meat. Red meat production requires nearly 30 times the amount of land required by chicken or pork, consumes more than 10 times the amount of water, and results in five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions of chicken or pork.

Lastly, the chapter states that restoring 12% of the worlds degraded agricultural land could increase the income of small landholders globally by US$35-40 billion and provide sufficient food for 200 million people each year. It could also increase resilience to weather shocks and reduce GHG emissions by approximately 2 Gigatonnes each year. Restoring a minimum of 250 million hectares of forest could generate US$170 billion in watershed protection benefits.

Also discussed are a number of other outcomes to be achieved by 2030. This date is set on the basis that by then the world’s population is expected to grow by 1.2 billion people and the middle class is expected to double. The suggested goals include preventing the ongoing deforestation and degradation of forests when promoting agricultural activity (especially tropical forests which are cleared more extensively than others). By achieving net zero deforestation (defined as the clearance of forests in one area and the replanting of an equal area somewhere else) we could reduce GHG emissions by approximately 3 Gigatonnes each year.

The Land Use chapter concludes with three recommendations on a global scale:

  • Enhance agricultural productivity and climate change resilience in developing countries
  • Manage demand for agricultural products
  • Eliminate deforestation and restore degraded forests

The statistics presented in this report are staggering. Wasting nearly $800 billion dollars worth of food worldwide each year is clearly a very serious environmental and social issue for everyone. It transcends the debate of whether developed or developing nations should take the lead, as in order to initiate change all of us need to play our part, regardless of which country we live in or our economic status.

Additional research published in a number of leading journals (some of which I have written articles about previously) is already telling us that some food crops including wheat, rice, maize and coffee are becoming increasingly vulnerable to changing environmental conditions around the world (e.g. due to lower rainfall, shorter growing seasons, soil erosion). These environmental changes need to be better investigated and understood in order to increase the resilience of food crops to climate change. If we don’t gain a better understanding of the influence of a changing climate on food production, food security will be threatened which will increase the purchase price of that food – potentially putting it out of reach for various populations.

The ultimate irony of producing but not consuming nearly $800 billion dollars worth of food worldwide each year is that doing so releases huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which in turn fuels changes in climate that threaten the growth of the food on which we rely for our survival. A vicious and tragic cycle indeed! It is clear we need to change our behaviour and improve food production in order to achieve an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable food waste management system.

See Chapter three of The Climate Economy report here

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