The Heart of the Food-Water-Energy Nexus? Reducing Food Loss and Waste
This post is written by Oliver Haugland, AAAS Fellow.
Year after year, it’s estimated that over 1/3 of all food produced is lost or wasted across food systems. Over 1.3 billion tons of food, all worth more than
$1 trillion, ends up rotting or spoiled at numerous points along the supply chain. Meanwhile, more than 800 million people across the world face hunger on a daily basis. The benefits of reducing food loss and waste (FLW) often focus downstream: less waste means a stronger food supply. Additionally, reducing post-harvest loss means greater security for farmers, a cornerstone of sustainable agriculture-led economic growth. But the sustainable development potential of FLW reduction goes much further when considering the upstream implications. In fact, the UN has described FLW reduction as a “woefully under-exploited” means of addressing food security, energy use and climate change; saving money; and reducing pressures on land, water and biodiversity and waste management systems.
What makes FLW reduction such a powerful lever? One explanation is its central position at the confluence of three fundamental resources: food, water and energy. These three resources form a nexus at the heart of sustainable development — a notable topic at last month’s COP27. Scarcities and disruptions to these linked resources compound to create inefficiencies and jeopardize livelihoods.
Connecting Food, Water and Climate
Water is a foundational input to the food system. Agriculture accounts for over 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally. Half of these withdrawals are from sources considered under stress. Globally, food production is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2050 to meet the demand of a growing and developing population. Meanwhile, over 2 billion people live in countries that rely on stressed water sources and nearly 1 billion people lack basic drinking water service. Pressure on these often-shared water sources are expected to intensify, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, as the area of irrigated land is expected to more than double by 2050.
Water is also a foundational input to energy systems. Ninety percent of global power generation is water-intensive and 30 percent of thermal energy production occurs in areas under high water stress. Energy and manufacturing-related water consumption is expected to surge by over 50 percent by 2040, increasing most aggressively in low-income countries.
Energy Demands and Climate Impacts
Agriculture and food systems account for 30 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and over 20 percent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. FLW alone accounts for as much as 10 percent of all GHG emissions. The food system’s appetite for energy and subsequent climate impacts are on the rise as global meat consumption shows no sign of slowing down.
The Potential of FLW
Rising global populations, changing diets and economic growth are putting greater pressure on the food-water-energy nexus and consequently numerous development goals. Governments and organizations looking to relieve the stresses on this nexus, an integral part of the food system, should consider the lowest of the low hanging fruit: waste. Reigning in food loss and waste reduces water and energy consumption and increases food security and economic growth simultaneously. As governments, businesses, and activist organizations promote sustainable development and GHG reduction, the importance of FLW is increasingly recognized. This was evident at COP27 with the new 123 Pledge to mobilize global action on FLW as a key climate strategy.
As the development community continues to embrace multi-sectoral strategies and consider the food system as a whole, we must appreciate the interconnectedness of food, water, and climate. We also must recognize the stresses exerted on these systems by waste. Improvements to farming practices, efficient irrigation methods, storage techniques, transportation infrastructure, regulations and social behaviors all have the potential to sustainably bolster food security. Governments, aid organizations and stakeholders from a wide range of disciplines have the opportunity to align and work together towards innovative solutions and programming. Doing so has great potential not only for food system resiliency, but also for water and climate systems.