A Green New Deal for global hunger

A Green New Deal for global hunger
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What weighs more, one ton of celery or one ton of beef? Obviously, the two are equal. Yet, the two are different when it comes to how the international community measures food loss. Celeries have significant nutritional costs, while beef carries significant environmental costs. This helps explain why our understanding of food loss — the decrease in quantity or quality of food as it travels the supply chain from farm to table — is limited. Experts don’t even agree on the amount of food that is lost because of lack of data.  

One in eight of us, about 870 million people, will go to bed hungry tonight — even though there is enough food to feed everyone. The problem is that about one-third of what we produce, totaling some $750 billion, is not actually used to feed people. We deplete 30 percent of the world’s agricultural area, use water equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva and create 3.6 billion tons of carbon emissions to grow food that’s never eaten. Not surprisingly, food loss is one of the major causes of hunger.

Environmentalists often discuss saving the planet without talking about hunger. It’s similar to Davos attendees discussing inequality without talking about taxes. Hunger should be at the core of the Green New Deal or any new global climate accord.

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In the U.S. and other high-income countries, food loss manifests itself as food waste, driven by consumer behavior. Think restaurants leaving uneaten food on the curb. In developing countries, food loss occurs earlier in the supply chain due to poor farming methods and infrastructure. Inadequate packaging, storage and transport can cause vegetables or milk to become degraded or spoiled.

If food waste were a country, it'd be the third largest global greenhouse gas emitter following the U.S. and China. That’s because agriculture causes one-third of greenhouse gas emission globally.

In America, food waste increased by up to 50 percent for every American since the mid-1970s, reaching more than 1,400 kcal per person per day, according to a 2009 government study. While there is no single baseline estimate for food loss, the Agriculture Department estimates that between 30 to 40 percent of food intended for human consumption is wasted. In 2010, that amounted to 133 billion pounds, the equivalent of the weight of 820 Washington Monuments.

All the while, climate change is upending lives across the country. The Green New Deal rightly calls for a sustainable food system to guarantee universal access to healthy food. It should overhaul the industrial overproduction of food to support low-carbon farming and small farmers, and eliminate waste of food and resources.

To manage food loss, experts need to improve methodologies to measure the losses. And everyone across the supply chain should work together to figure out how to prevent the loss and put potential solutions into practice. For example, better coordination between farmers and suppliers could match supply and demand, preventing overproduction or underproduction.

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In developing countries, governments should provide adequate transport systems and access to credits to support small farmers and rural communities. In industrialized countries, governments should enhance regulations and standards.

For starters, relax the stringent expiration-date labels. And encourage companies and consumers to reduce waste. France is the torch bearer on this front, as the only country to penalize supermarkets for throwing away edible products. It created a ministerial position focused on agro-food system to work alongside agriculture minister concentrating on production.

Businesses have an important role to play. From decisions involving crop varieties and pre-harvest pests to processing and retail, they are well-equipped to tackle the causes of food loss. The good news is that more firms are becoming interested in moving food efficiently. This is an area of opportunity for companies to lower costs and find new markets.

Presidential hopefuls promising to focus on farm incomes need to figure out how to incentivize the private sector. Even before the China trade war, farmers were already worried about low crop prices as mergers among big agribusinesses took place.

Detractors might argue that, given the complexity of the problem, it would be better to focus on producing more food than reducing food loss. Most countries are handling the growing demand for food this way. But increasing agricultural production requires time and money. Reducing food loss, on the other hand, can generate more food quickly and cheaply without harming the environment. It also means more income for the farmers and cheaper food for the consumers.

Food loss and waste reflects the current unjust and unsustainable food system. France’s Yellow Vest protests began over the hike in carbon taxes and the cost of living. In war-torn Yemen, 5 million people are living in famine-like conditions because they cannot afford the fruits and vegetables stocked in markets.

Hunger is a moral issue that hits home, too. In 2016, more than 12 percent of American households in cities, as well as non-metropolitan areas didn’t have enough food. In Mississippi, one out of five households was food insecure. Reducing food loss would reduce food prices in the U.S. and the rest of the world. It’s a massively underrated, cost-effective strategy to boost human security that governments and social advocates should incorporate into their agenda.

Like taxes in Davos, hunger is a word that goes unmentioned on green lawmakers’ agenda items. It’s a shame and a tragedy. After all, one ton of food loss is the same, whether you are an American or someone in the developing world.

Katrin Park has developed and implemented integrated advocacy and communications strategies for development organizations, including the United Nations Development Program in New York and the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Cairo, to promote development policies and support humanitarian operations.