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How to reduce food insecurity and mitigate climate change amid COVID-19

How to reduce food insecurity and mitigate climate change amid COVID-19
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The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare our most fundamental vulnerabilities. In the United States, unemployment rates reached levels not seen in more than a century. The rate of food insecurity in our country has more than tripled to an estimated 38 percent. In fact, food insecurity is rising everywhere. According to a survey from The Global FoodBanking Network, food banks in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America reported increased demand for emergency food assistance since the crisis began, as well as a shortage of supplies. 

Yet one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year. This food waste accounts for 8-10 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, further contributing to the climate crisis. As the world responds to COVID-19, government leaders and policymakers also have a chance to rebuild and modernize policies for a more efficient and resilient food system. 

There is no silver bullet, but we can start by reducing food waste and turning food surplus into sustenance for those in need. Food donation helped to mitigate hunger and food insecurity for more than 62 million people before COVID-19. There is enough food produced in the world to feed everyone, but because food is heavily regulated, laws can pose barriers to food donation, complicating efforts to redirect safe, surplus food to those in need. Food donation policy reform needs to be part of the global strategy to reduce world hunger and food waste. 

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In the U.S., food safety rules vary from state to state and city to city, making it impossible for large businesses to standardize their food donation programs and ensure surplus food makes it to those in need. In India, millions of pounds of food go to waste each year from lavish weddings, as caterers are afraid they will be liable if someone gets sick from donated surplus. In Argentina, food companies face a tax penalty if they donate food to food banks rather than throw extra food supplies away in a landfill. In Canada, food banks feel they must turn away food past its “sell by” date even though that food is still safe and edible for days and weeks past the quality date. Replacing these barriers with stronger policies could make food recovery the easy choice, and could assist in efforts to reduce world hunger and mitigate climate change. 

Reducing unnecessary food waste has emerged as a global priority in recent years. Whether to mitigate climate change, to address food insecurity and hunger, or simply to save money and natural resources, more countries are investing in food waste reduction efforts and partnering with food industry leaders to drive change. Unfortunately, food businesses and food recovery organizations from India to Mexico to the United States consistently report running into legal barriers that hamper their efforts. But what do food donation laws in India have to do with food donation laws in the United States? As it turns out, countries can learn a lot from one another as they attempt to answer questions about food donation law and policy.

There are six key areas of law that impact food donation in countries across the world: i) food safety, ii) date labeling, iii) liability concerns, vi) tax incentives and barriers, v) government grants or incentives, and vi) food waste penalties or food donation requirements. These issues are raised again and again by food banks, retailers, caterers, hotels, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies across countries. To ensure food is not needlessly wasted, governments can review their policies on these six areas and make sure they are making food donation the easy choice. Policymakers can take advantage of resources, like the newly launched Global Food Donation Policy Atlas, to learn from one another about how they can reform their laws to build a more resilient and sustainable food system.

Food loss and waste are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the inefficiency and absurdity of food waste while millions go hungry. It is heartbreaking to see produce rotting in the field and the mass euthanizing of animals while families line up for hours outside of food pantries and community feeding sites. Food donation cannot solve all our food insecurity needs. It is not a replacement for necessary social protection and work security programs. However, it can ensure that safe, edible food is not wasted in vain. We must bridge the gap between surplus food and emergency food needs. The time is now for national policymakers to eliminate needless legal barriers and offer needed incentives, to make food recovery and donation the easy choice for safe surplus food, and to rebuild from COVID-19 with a stronger and more resilient food system for the future.  

Emily Broad Leib is a clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, and deputy director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School.