A Tri-national Approach to Fighting Food Loss and Waste in North America
By: Antonia Andúgar Miñarro, Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC)
It is estimated that each year, food loss and waste (FLW) in North America amounts to 168 million tons of the food produced for human consumption. This waste occurs throughout the food supply chain in Mexico, Canada and the United States. All this despite the fact that food security and the efficient use of resources are among the main priorities in the national social, environmental, and development policies of the three countries. The food we waste costs our economies $ 278 billion and could have fed 260 million people. Furthermore, this waste generates an estimated 193 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.
Policies and programs on FLW are gaining traction across North America as awareness of this issue grows. All uneaten food products pose not only a great environmental and socio-economic cost, but also a huge opportunity. Taking action to prevent FLW offers a unique “triple benefit”: financial gains, mitigation of negative effects on the environment, and a better quality of life for people who currently lack sufficient food.
A Tri-national Approach to Respond to a Tri-national Priority
The results initially obtained through the North American Initiative for the reduction and recovery of food waste of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) established in the framework of the Operational Plan 2015-2016 to focus on the priority areas “green economy / green growth and “climate change” launched the tri-national work in this area. The CEC deepened research on the main causes of FLW generation along the food supply chain, and advanced proposals for global strategies to address its reduction in combination with food recovery and rescue. Two founding reports, one on organic waste and another on PDA , laid the foundation for global understanding and regional cooperation.
The Measurement and Mitigation of Food Loss and Waste project (CEC Operational Plan 2017-2018) then shaped these strategies into two reference documents, a practical guide and a technical report on FLW quantification. Currently, the project Prevention and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste (Operational Plan 2019-2020) has given continuity to reflection and is focused on the application and validation of said guide by representatives of the supply chain in the three countries. Last but not least, the CEC has attached great importance to the education component, placing the role of youth at the center of preventing and combating FLW. The Food Matters Kit offers educators and young leaders a tool to inspire and promote behavior change. For this reason, the awareness campaign “Let’s reduce the mountain of wasted food” recently launched has been a new call to action.
It’s therefore within this conceptual framework that the CEC has conducted various studies and published various tools and resources that offer support to organizations, institutions, companies and even citizens / households to better understand the scope of FLW. This analytical work has allowed the CEC to place the identification of opportunities at the center of its recommendations for the adoption of actions by the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sectors, as well as governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in all three countries. This means that, in order to successfully reduce and prevent FLW, the CEC has paid special attention to quantifying it, since measuring it enables to determine the scope of the problem and the critical points that must be addressed more urgently, in addition to facilitating monitoring progress over time. Ultimately, what is measured can be appropriately managed.
It’s worth mentioning that there are differences between the three countries (as well as within each nation) in terms of the structure of their food supply chains. These differences include the nature of the FLW generated, the companies that operate in each country, and the regulatory and policy frameworks in which they operate. For example, in comparison with Mexico, both Canada and the United States register a higher FLW in the consumption stages, so in both cases it is relatively more important to focus the attention to combat FLW in those stages. In Mexico, on the other hand, informal routes for the elimination or final disposal of food waste have a greater presence than in the other two countries, and therefore demand special attention in this context. Likewise, the types of food grown and processed in the three nations differ substantially, and something similar occurs with regard to the degree of progress of each nation in formulating its methodology to record and monitor achieving Goal 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). All in all, the similarities are enough to warrant the development of a single practical guide, useful to guide companies, governments, and organizations throughout North America with relevant and pertinent information.
For all these reasons, one of the flagship projects in recent years in this area has been the development of the Practical Guide “Why and How to Quantify Food Loss and Waste” mentioned above, and the technical report on the quantification of FLW and food surpluses in the North American context that accompanies the Guide with detailed information. The technical report presents various methods and approaches for quantifying FLW and food surpluses in the food supply chain, as well as calculating their environmental, social and economic impacts. Bearing in mind that working in a trilateral manner allows the combination of experiences and cooperation elements from the entire region, examples are offered from the three countries, but also from other parts of the world. The detailed information and analyzes in the report support the practical guide, which is intended to a be concise, easy-to-reference material that provides guidance on what to measure and how to measure it to determine FLW. The guide comprises a plan that outlines step-by-step how companies and governments can implement the process to measure FLW. It includes the following topics:
- Why quantify food loss and waste.
- Financial and environmental justification: how to determine the viability of FLW measurement and reduction initiatives.
- Overcoming common barriers and obstacles.
- Tracking the causes of food loss and waste.
- Conversion of indicators to measure other effects of an economic, environmental and social nature.
- Selection of a measurement method.
Together, both documents offer a coherent strategy to address common challenges and address FLW issues through trilateral cooperation, but they are also flexible enough to adapt to specific country contexts. The purpose, in both cases, is to serve governments, the food sector, companies, institutions, and non-profit organizations in the three countries seeking a better knowledge about food loss and waste and its measurement at each stage of the process of the food supply chain, with the common goal of preventing and reducing food waste.
Acceptance of this guide and the relevance of its recommendations has led to applying and validating its content, with the support of CEC valuable collaborators such as CEDO and other important organizations and companies in the food supply chain representing various links of said chain in the three countries.
CEC projects have highlighted similar challenges faced by companies, NGOs, and the governments of Mexico, Canada, and the United States in the fight against FLW, including determining the appropriate methodology to quantify FLW, the use of the information collected to estimate the effects associated with FLW, and the choice of measurement parameters and key performance indicators that allow progress to be tracked over time. These challenges are not unique to the region, and while many of the good practice examples included in the report come from North America, the truth is that efforts to advance in the quantification of FLW and its effects have a true international character.
In short, increasing awareness of the food supply chain in particular and of society as a whole, and promoting a paradigm shift, begins by measuring FLW. This step is the first in the race that everyone, from the producer to the consumer, must undertake to tackle an issue that has a great decisional component and involves introducing changes in our behavior: to waste is to throw away food intended for human consumption whose production, transportation, and preparation have used a multitude of resources that are also wasted.
It’s a question of financial efficiency which is itself an environmental question and has become an ethical dilemma. The CEC is confident that this material available to North American society will empower stakeholders in the region to be part of the solution to the problem of FLW and to contribute to strengthening the vision of prosperous communities and resilient ecosystems that it shares with CEDO.