Understanding food waste, hunger, and climate change with John Mandyck

From foodtank.com by Harriet Kim
Understanding food waste, hunger, and climate change with John Mandyck

John M. Mandyck serves as Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Corporation. He chairs the Corporate Advisory Board of the World Green Building Council, serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Urban Green Council in New York City, and sits on the Corporate Council at the Harvard University Center for Health and Global Environment. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with John Mandyck about his new book, the connections between climate change, food waste, and hunger, and the role of the cold chain.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you and [your co-author] Eric B. Schultz to write Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change? What can we expect from the book?

John Mandyck (JM): In the book, we outline the enormous impact of food waste on hunger, climate change, natural resources, and food security. More than 1 billion metric tons of food is lost or wasted, never making it from the farm to our fork. To put that into perspective, imagine 1.3 billion healthy elephants standing on top of each other in one pile. That is what we are losing from the food supply chain each year. Meanwhile, more than 800 million people are chronically hungry – a population equivalent to the United States (U.S.) and the European Union combined. Food waste also has a devastating impact on the environment, from its greenhouse gas emissions to the water wasted to grow the food we never eat. The embodied carbon dioxide emissions alone represent 3.3 billion metric tons. That is all the energy that goes to produce the food we never eat, including fuel for tractors, electricity for water pumps, the power for packaging facilities, and more. In fact, if food waste were a country by itself, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the U.S. The water associated with food waste is equally concerning. The water we use to grow the food we throw away is greater than the water used by any single nation on the planet.

We believe that the scale and consequence of food waste must be elevated and examined globally. That is why we wrote Food Foolish; to call attention to the extraordinary social and environmental opportunities created by wasting less food. We wanted to format the data and the implication of food waste in a way that could be readily accessible to anybody. We hope this book can help connect the global dialogue on an issue many think is essential to the sustainability of the planet. 

FT: Can you tell Food Tank readers about the nexus between food loss, hunger, and climate change? Why are these relationships as underappreciated as they are now?

JM: Although unintended, food waste happens around us all the time. Until now, the food we eat, and the water necessary to grow it, was taken for granted. That is changing thanks to new data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and other sources that detail, for the first time, the environmental consequence of all the wasted food. With data, people can make better decisions. For example, it takes 5.4 gallons of water to grow a single head of broccoli. People might think twice about letting that broccoli go to waste knowing it would also waste so much water.

The connection between food waste and climate change is also missing from policy discussions and public discourse. The carbon footprint of food waste is already 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. The United Nations (U.N.) estimates we will have to grow our agricultural production by 70 percent to feed 9.6 billion people in 2050. But we already grow and produce enough food today to feed 10 billion people! We can avoid the future carbon impact of producing more food by more efficiently distributing the food we already have today.

A recent study by the University of Nottingham, “The Impact of Reducing Food Loss in the Global Cold Chain,” found that hidden hunger can cost a country 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Another study, focused on several African countries, concluded that the annual costs associated with child undernutrition can be as high as 16.5 percent of national GDP. Here in the U.S., hunger costs US$167.5 billion annually due to lost productivity, more expensive public education, avoidable health care costs, and the price of charity to keep families fed. We grow and produce enough food to feed everyone today and everyone by 2050. We have to change the paradigm. We have to waste less to feed more.

FT: Given your work in refrigeration and the cold chain, can you tell us what role this plays in the food, hunger, and climate change nexus? How has it influenced your perspective in the global food system?

JM: Our Carrier business is a world leader in cold chain technologies for marine containers, road transport, and supermarket display cases. This long history of transporting, storing, and preserving perishables has given us a unique insight into the global food system. What we see concerns us, particularly in how we are going to feed a growing population and how we are going to do it sustainably.

Food lost at the production and distribution levels account for two-thirds of global food waste, as many emerging economies have an underdeveloped cold chain to preserve food from farm-to-market. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish represent more than half of all the food wasted before consumption. All of these foods need basic refrigeration; yet, only 10 percent of perishable foods are refrigerated worldwide, despite the fact that it is the best technology to ensure food safety and security. If developing countries had the same level of refrigeration for the transportation and storage of food as developed countries, approximately one-quarter of food loss would be avoided.

More food saved means greater opportunity to feed more people. The University of Nottingham study found that the real value of reducing food waste, particularly in fruits and vegetables, is to improve the nutritional value of diets to fight anemia, visual impairment, or blindness. Reducing fruit and vegetable loss would have a significant impact on the amount of these micronutrients available in developing countries, which would help to some degree alleviate hidden hunger.

As an industry, we have also been moving very quickly to find ways to lower the cold chain’s greenhouse gas footprint. The cold chain is becoming more energy-efficient by utilizing more environmentally sustainable technologies, including natural refrigerants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We also have an independent analysis that shows if emerging economies have the same level of cold chain as developed countries, we can see greater than a net 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from avoiding food spoilage and loss. Existing technology is the solution, and a greater global dialogue must support these practical measures.

FT: In what ways can we get the dialogue on these connections between food waste and climate change into policy discussions? Do you have some recommended actions for policymakers? 

JM: When you hear about climate policy, you never hear the words “food waste.” Our goal is to make food waste a climate issue because we think it will bring in new funding and new policy avenues to address the problem comprehensively. Reducing food waste is the only climate action that unlocks solutions for hunger, nutrition, water scarcity, economic expansion, and national security. No other can do the same.

We are encouraged to see food waste reduction goals included within sustainable development strategies. The U.N. recently adopted a goal to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030. The U.S. also just announced the country’s first-ever food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030.  We must continue to raise the profile of food waste and its economic, environmental, and societal impacts. If we consider the valuable natural resources used to produce our food and the food we waste, there is an opportunity to change our current path. We just have to get food waste a seat at the table.

FT: After reading the book, do you have any recommendations for questions to ask to initiate those meaningful dialogues for everyday consumers?

JM: This is an issue we can all relate to, and certainly consumers can do something about it. In developed countries, consumers tend to buy too much and throw it away, or are served too much and cannot finish the portions. Changing this behavior can be done through education and awareness, by asking ourselves how much food we need and if we will be able to use it all. Currently, the U.S. is launching a consumer education campaign to address household waste, including the U.S. Department of AgricultureFoodKeeper’ app, which helps consumers maximize the storage life of foods and beverages in their homes.

Additionally, we have a romantic notion of how we view our food. We want all our apples to be perfectly round, yet nature does not deliver them that way. What happens to the apples that nature gives us that are oval and not round? They get discarded as so-called “ugly” fruits or ugly vegetables. We are going to have to understand that nature does not deliver food in the formats that we have thought of uniformly, and that “ugly” fruits and vegetables are as equally nutritious and delicious as the perfectly shaped ones.

Above all, we encourage everyday consumers to help raise awareness of the consequences of wasting food. We believe that with an active, connected global dialogue, we can inspire action to secure the future of food. This is an issue we can solve at the global level, the national level and the individual level. Everyone can make a meaningful difference.

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