Fighting Food Loss and Waste with NDCs Five Ways to Reduce Food Loss and Waste through Circular Climate Action

By Katharina Davis, UNDP and Alana Craigen, UNDP.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change offers countries a unique opportunity to adopt transformative food system solutions to reduce food loss and waste.

Reducing food loss and waste is essential to feed a burgeoning world population within the realm of our planetary boundaries. Every year, around 1.3 billion tonnes, or one third of the food produced does not make it into our stomachs. This also means that precious resources used for food production - such as water, land, energy, labour and capital – are lost. In addition to the emissions generated by the production of food, the disposal of food loss and waste in landfills leads to emissions of methane, a powerful, fast-warming greenhouse gas. If we stopped wasting food, we could reduce emissions from the food system by an estimated 8 to 11 percent.

But while we are wasting food, millions go hungry – a situation that will only be intensified by the impact of climate change, land degradation and rapid urbanization.

Asia’s young and increasingly affluent population is expected to double its demand for food to US$ 8 trillion. And yet, while the total net imports of food in Asia have tripled over the last twenty years, almost half a billion people still suffer from mal-nutrition.

Strong economic and population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to triple domestic food demand by 2050. Globally, food demand is expected to increase anywhere from 59 percent to 98 percent by 2050.

Increasing food demand around the world will also further tip the balance and make it more difficult to ensure food security.

How are countries addressing food loss and waste in their climate pledges under the Paris Agreement?

While close to 89 percent of all countries included climate solutions or activities within the agriculture sector in their initial climate pledges or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), very few set targets in relation to the stages beyond food production. Only eleven countries currently mention food loss as an issue that needs to be addressed in their NDCs, and not a single country mentions food waste (WWF, UNEP 2020). Similarly, only around one dozen countries include measures in their NDCs that will directly contribute to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12, target 12.3 Food Loss and Waste.

The Paris Agreement offers a unique opportunity to reduce global emissions from and enhance the resilience of food systems by taking a global, systemic and comprehensive approach to the problem. Its instruments, including the NDCs, National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Long-term Strategies (LTS) for climate-resilient, low-carbon economies, can serve as national blueprints for making improvements in the food supply chains that contribute to sustainable development objectives.

As countries are currently in the process of revising their NDCs and identifying opportunities to strengthen and enhance targets and measures, many are conducting in-depth reviews of food system sectors and can further integrate measures to address food loss and waste.

This is a critical opportunity.

However, based on a brief review of over 110 countries’ NDC revision workplans under UNDP’s flagship Climate Promise initiative supporting countries to enhance their NDCs, to date only a small number of countries made a reference to food loss or waste, and in many cases indirectly. Therefore, there are still opportunities to strengthen this linkage and seize the opportunity.

Food systems - including all activities from production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption - account for up to 37% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. (UNEP/WWF 2020)

Five pathways to reduce food loss and waste through a circular food systems approach

Growing evidence suggests that a climate-resilient and 1.5°C world can only be circular. One way we can help promote this vision is by restructuring our food systems to adopt a circular approach: an approach where food loss and waste is designed out of the system, food by-products are transformed and used at their highest value, and food production improves rather than degrades the environment. This in turn will help countries strengthen food security and ensure climate-smart food production for the future.

Here are five ways how countries can build more sustainable, circular food systems through their NDCs:

1. Make agricultural production more sustainable.

Review climate and water footprint of conventional agricultural methods and reverse large-scale agricultural land degradation and ground water depletion through: (a) technologies that optimize land and water usage, (b) nature-based solutions that restore ecosystems and (c) adopting alternative high-grade nutrient sources and regenerative farming practices.

Priority areas here include reducing the loss and waste of meat and dairy in high-income regions such as in Europe, North America and Latin America (impact on land) as well as reducing the loss and waste of cereals in Asia (impact on land and blue water), and fruits in Asia, Europe, and Latin America (impact on blue water).

2. Review supply chains and urban design patterns for opportunities to create more circular food systems.

In Asia, an estimated 40 percent of the food transported is lost. Circular urban and peri-urban farming models offer significant opportunities to reduce food loss and waste by bringing food production closer to the end user. This can be a particularly attractive solution for fast urbanizing, net-food importing countries in Asia, for instance, where food demand already exceeds the capacity of arable land.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the brittleness of global food supply chains and their vulnerability in the face of national and global crises. Urban and peri-urban farming can therefore help build resilience against such external shocks and strengthen local and national food security.

3. Broaden access to clean and decentralised energy to expand usage of adequate cooling and storage systems

Lack of cooling makes it difficult for fresh produce to last, leading to massive post-harvest losses. An average of 23 percent of food production in developing countries is lost because of poor refrigeration. In the poorest regions of the world and particularly in rural areas, food losses are often due to insufficient access to reliable energy infrastructure, which reduces opportunities for value-added activities such as processing and cooling.

Closing the energy access gap – around 1.2 billion people still do not have access to electricity, and many more suffer from a poor supply (IEA, 2016) – could not only cut food loss but also dramatically improve livelihoods and expand income generation.

4. Review opportunities to invest in other climate-smart infrastructure such as transport, irrigation, processing and storage.

There are many different elements of the agricultural supply chain that present opportunities to strengthen circular approaches and sustainability. For example, developing more sustainable and energy-efficient cold chains can result in multiple benefits, especially when combined with technologies that can help us better understand our food’s journey, track temperature and freshness, gauge ripeness, improve demand and supply forecasts, and identify “waste” streams and how these can be captured and fed into other processes.

5. Recover nutrients from wastewater and post-consumer food waste.

Every day, African cities create thousands of tonnes of wastewater and other organic waste that could be profitably recycled into fertilizer, soil conditioner, clean energy and irrigation water. Wastewater, excreta, farm waste and food waste are all rich with raw materials that can be safely processed back into economically valuable – and environmentally sustainable – products.

Globally, 80 percent of wastewater flows back into ecosystems without being treated or reused, with emissions from untreated wastewater accounting for three times the emissions of treated wastewater. Capturing this wastewater through circular approaches would lead to significant health, environmental and economic benefits for cities, regions and countries.

Integrating circular economy approaches into NDCs for food production will not only help lower emissions and build climate resilience but it will also contribute towards leading healthier lives and improving livelihoods while respecting and restoring planetary boundaries.

Reducing food loss and waste contributes to the SDGs, especially making progress towards ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture (SDG 2) and halving food loss and waste through sustainable production and consumption (SDG 12).

The circular economy offers a vision for food systems that is fit for the 21st century – for both people and planet.


Created with images from UNDP and by Radoslaw Prekurat - "Monkey breakfast" • Avinash Kumar - "untitled image" • Big Dodzy - "6:48AM - Tin Hau Market " • Louis Smit "Ola cart in Cape Town" • Science in HD - "NREL photovoltaic dual-use research project at growing crops under PV Arrays while producing electricity from the panels.