How cities can fight food loss and waste

November 4, 2020

As we enter the second wave of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the strength of our food supply chains is being put to the test. Again. How many of us, perhaps for the first time, have had to carefully budget food for a period of several months? The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all those along the food supply chain, from farmers to processors and households.

This opens a window of opportunity to shift our food system to a more resilient, sustainable and circular path. One where food loss and waste are designed out, food by-products are transformed and used at their highest value, and food production improves rather than damages the environment.

This shift is urgent. Cities will be home to 66 percent of the global population and consume over 80 percent of the world’s food by 2050. In the meantime, one-third of the food produced for human consumption is being lost or wasted, the equivalent of 1.3 billion tonnes per year. This waste does not include the land, water and energy that went into producing it. And yet cities hold the key to unlocking the potential to not only satisfy this increased demand but also improve livelihoods, citizens’ health and the natural environment.   

There are a number of high-dividend actions that countries can take under the Paris Agreement to fight food loss and waste through circular action. Here, we would like to share some ideas.

Promote urban and peri-urban food production

Cities can increase their resilience to external shocks and help strengthen food security by relying on a mix of local, regional and global producers. Shorter food supply chains help reduce unnecessary food loss due to storage and transportation inefficiencies, not to mention the associated distribution costs and emissions and excess plastic packaging. People will benefit as well. Locally-sourced, fresh, and nutritious food will help contribute to healthy diets and well-being. Many of the world’s major cities are already trying to improve their urban food systems under the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an international pact covering 210 cities and more than 450 million people.    

Rethink policies for land use and urban design

Cities can be advocates and enablers, making vacant city-owned lots available for farm leases, passing zoning laws and launching programmes to promote urban agriculture. Paris and Singapore have launched initiatives to take advantage of rooftops for food production and include urban farms in new developments. In poorer countries, the agricultural heritage of many rural-urban migrants is helping cities improve food security.  In Lusaka, over half of urban residents grow their own food, while in Kampala and Yaounde many urban households raise livestock, including poultry, dairy cattle, and pigs. However, in many countries in Africa urban agriculture is not part of official urban planning policies, and land tenure remains a major challenge.

Generate value from waste

Food loss and waste, which the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates is costing US$1 trillion every year has the potential to create new income streams for local governments and businesses. A part of this economic loss could be recaptured by converting waste into sustainable agricultural, natural fertilizers or other high value products. Several cities in the United States pulverize food scraps through in-sink garbage disposals, then turn the slurry into fertilizers and biogas to power buses and water treatment facilities. Sweet Benin, an innovative example from Benin, is working with TechnoServe to turn waste from cashew harvests into a new beverage industry and help cashew farmers supplement their off-season incomes. This large waste stream can be upcycled into safe, tasty and healthy products and ingredients that can work at large scale distribution.

Deploy digitalization and data-driven urban farming

Better data can help us understand our food’s journey or “waste” streams to determine how they can be captured and upcycled into other value-generating processes. During the pandemic, many cities, including those in China, shifted to online market places to connect small farmers with consumers, and to distribute food as the traditional distribution tracks shut down. Tools such as the Food Loss and Waste Value Calculator can also help cities track how their efforts to prevent food loss and waste provide nutritional and environmental value.

The current intersection of ongoing crises; public health, climate and economic, provide us with an incentive to seek transformational change. This is an opportunity that should not be missed. Our current food system is no longer fit for the society and planetary needs of the 21st century. It is ripe for disruption and cities can lead the way.