Future 500 | Finding common ground between uncommon allies

Seeking to effect common-sense solutions to food insecurity and waste

Holding a summit to tackle the tough issues of food insecurity, exploitation of food workers, and food waste at the opulent Ritz Carlton in San Francisco provoked an interesting contrast, but the collection of industry, NGOs, media and students in attendance were indifferent to their surroundings and intently focused on improving the world’s food system. Many speakers issued calls-to-action for stakeholders from all regions, socio-economic standing, and sector to collaborate to ensure the world’s plentiful food gets to those who most need it.

Organized by Organic Monitor, the annual Summit seeks to foster meaningful and necessary conversations between all groups involved in the sustainable food production process. The discussion ranged from Life-Cycle-Assessments for food and packaging, to eco-labeling, to global food production, with candid conversations on a broad swath of food-related issues.

Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are chronically undernourished and 50 million people in the U.S. are food insecure. One group can’t solve these challenges alone – food corporations, government and NGOs have to work together and find innovative solutions. Irit Tamir of OxFam America outlined seven investments the world needs to make to feed our growing populations, such as investing in women, supporting small-scale farmers and securing everyone’s right to water.

Several speakers highlighted that the world produces enough food to nourish everyone, but too much is discarded due to inefficient transportation, market distorting water and crop subsidies, consumer preferences in the developed world that contribute to excess food waste, and food laws that reinforce inefficient production and waste. As Amy Kirtland from Unified Grocers noted, global food loss and waste reached an estimated 1.3 billion tons in 2012. 40% of food in the U.S. is discarded, or roughly 20 pounds of food per person monthly.

As Jonathon Bloom of Wasted Food explained, the existing food system perpetuates the overproduction of commodities, artificially low prices, and disproportionate use of our resources (80% of water, 50% of land and 10% of global oil is used in food production). Subsidies that perpetuate low food prices result in the developed world markets being flooded with foods while placing undue strain on the developing world’s food producers to meet this artificial demand.

These market distortions exacerbate environmental impacts through overproduction on the front end, which leads to excessive landfilling of food waste on the back end. For instance, organic materials in landfills contribute to the production of methane gas (which, it turns out, is approximately 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas).

Groups like the UN FAO, Unified Grocer’s Food Waste Reduction Alliance, NRDC, Feeding America and even retailers like Whole Foods are advancing to develop solutions. NRDC’s Dana Gunder pointed out that reducing food waste by just 15% could help feed up to 25 million Americans. The non-profit Feeding America delivers nearly 3 billion meals every year, and is trying to ramp up to 4 million. Meanwhile, the UN FAO’s Florence Rolle described how they are working to improve communications between farmers in the first world (to match production to demand) and processors in the developing world (to avoid food loss in production).

Many speakers touched on the need for help across borders, industries, languages, interest groups and stakeholders, requiring a concerted effort. As Amy Kirtland of Unified Grocers and member of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance stated, we need “radical collaboration and radical innovation.” Such collaborative innovations evolve from the kind of strategic cross-sector, multi-stakeholder engagement that Future 500 specializes in. I left the summit energized by the challenges raised and the opportunities to effect solutions through our Food Soil and Water initiative in 2013 and beyond.


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