The Elites at Davos Take On the $1 Trillion Food Waste Problem

Not one but two major initiatives on reducing the amount of edibles that end up in the trash were announced at the global economic summit.
(Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)
Jan 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Some of the world’s wealthiest business leaders and most powerful government officials are putting their mouths where the money is when it comes to food waste—a problem that globally costs $1 trillion every year.

The World Economic Forum, formed in 1945, is best known for its annual meeting of the rich and important who gather for a brief retreat and exchange ideas in Davos, Switzerland. This year’s talks are on subjects such as clean energy, global health, and the Chinese economy. But with the announcement on Thursday of not one but two initiatives focused on food waste, the edible things we throw away up and down the food chain have also become a hot topic in the Swiss Alps.

Champions 12.3 is a newly formed group of global executives and leaders who have promised to focus on the United Nation’s goal, announced last September, to cut per-capita global food waste in half by 2030. Those involved include chief executives from Tesco and Nestlé; directors of institutions like the International Food Policy Research Institute; agriculture ministers from Denmark, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United States; and many others. As a group, however, all the champions have specifically pledged is to keep raising food-waste awareness.

“This is the first time that this specific group of executives have come together for an initiative,” said Craig Hanson, World Research Institute’s global director of food, forests, and water programs. “What unites these champions is that each in their own way is demonstrating leadership on the issue of reducing food loss and waste, and all want to inspire the world to meet SDG Target 12.3.”

The Dutch firm Rabobank, whose chairman is a champion, is a leading financer of food and agriculture ventures that already has a program seeking to increase food production and distribution while decreasing waste. Other organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, World Farmers’ Organization, and the nonprofit Feedback, whose leaders are all involved in Champions 12.3, already have a vested stake in food and agriculture. In addition to its president signing on to the Champions mission, today the Rockefeller Foundation has also announced a separate $130 million initiative to reduce food waste around the world, according to The New York Times.

The astronomic cost of food waste makes it a fitting topic for Davos. But much like the U.N. program Save Food, the goal of Champions 12.3 seems to rest more on awareness building than any specific actions. “They are the ‘constant voice’ on the issue,” said Hanson. “Nearly everywhere they go, whomever they meet, these champions are going to ask, ‘What are you doing about cutting food loss and waste?’ ” As a group, however, they are not putting forth any concrete plans for meeting the U.N.’s lofty goal.

The group of 30 world leaders certainly meets with and influences a lot of high-level people. But is more talk the best way to cut down on global food waste? Though there’s no easy solution to the problem, there’s plenty of research that at the very least shows where to start. In low-income countries, for example, steps to improve storage, transportation, and packaging could cut down on a significant portion of food waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For middle- or high-income nations, it’s important to rethink agricultural subsidies as well as reduce at-home food waste through better meal planning. With political will behind them, these are all very plausible actions to take.

There are also more concrete efforts that are already under way and show real potential for success. In 2014, Denmark launched a “national partnership for reduction of avoidable food waste” featuring “binding collaboration between all links in the food chain and relevant authorities and organization,” Eva Kjer Hansen, the country’s minister of environment and food, said in the press release announcing the Champions 12.3 initiative. Likewise, the World Wildlife Fund is partnering with governments and organizations to “achieve farming practices that improve land and soil quality, and maintain ecosystems so that increased agricultural productivity does not come at the expense of the environment,” president Yolanda Kakabadse said in the release.

“If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world,” Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, pointed said in the statement. Food waste also contributes to annual water loss, hunger, and unnecessary land use. If we take action quickly, we could make a significant dent in these environmental repercussions.