Food Loss & Waste Series 2022

In Focus: Investing in evidence-driven actions are key to addressing food loss and waste

Our 'In Focus' series sits down with people at the cutting edge of improving nutrition outcomes to understand their perspective, passions and latest projects. Today we talk with Pete Pearson from WWF on the need to invest in data-driven actions to address food loss and waste.

1.Being a film producer and storyteller, how does that inform how you communicate about food waste prevention and safety?

In 2006, I worked in IT at a large US grocery chain. During that time, I decided to shift my career trajectory by pursuing a sustainability-based MBA programme. That experience shaped my thinking and helped me identify opportunities to increase efficiencies in food systems. Once I started down that path, I got hooked. I knew that I wanted to focus my career on food system issues. For me, it's about applying a systems-lens to how food is produced, distributed, sold and ultimately used and wasted on a planet with not only a growing population but also increasing affluence.

Then about eight years ago, I decided to try to tell the story of why people were pursuing regenerative agriculture. I had no prior experience in filming, but my partner did. So, we picked our cameras and followed farmers to hear their stories. We met some interesting people along the way. To this day, that experience informs my food philosophy and food systems thinking and what it takes to be a farmer.

At the bare minimum, recognising food loss and waste means appreciating where food comes from, the sacrifices made to get it to our plates and being conscious about the way we eat. Food loss and waste represents a stark way of recognising that appreciation. 

2. The Nutrition Connect audience hears a lot about regenerative agriculture. How does one get the public and private sectors to see its long-term value?

It's funny how terms change over the years. Ten-fifteen years ago, when I first started studying this, we were familiar with permaculture and sustainable agriculture. As terminology changes, the philosophy remains the same. In my opinion, regenerative agriculture, is agriculture and land use that is consistently monitored and evaluated for key performance indicators like soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. Measuring these KPI’s allow us to evaluate what practices demonstrate the most improvement for both people, profitability the environment.

 From a private sector perspective, we must start monitoring and evaluating what's going on in our landscapes and what's happening in the communities producing food, fuel and fiber. Metrics may change or get tweaked along the way; the way that we measure soil health may change; the way that we measure water filtration may change, and the way that we assess biodiversity may change. But the philosophy or mandate should remain consistent - gathering data on how agriculture affects people and the environment to inform our next steps in tackling food loss and waste. However, collecting and synthesising data across the production and supply chains is not as easy as it sounds.

3. What's the latest news or recent successes from WWF's initiatives under the Food Waste Program 

When I started working at WWF in 2015, food waste was an initiative that country offices developed independently. Today, we now have a shared vision, structure, and strategy on how we would like to tackle food waste across our entire network of offices. On a higher level, we have an international Food Practice focused on reducing food loss and waste, developing sustainable production and nature-based solutions and ensuring healthy and nutritious diets and consumer choices & behaviour

We are seeing a lot of success across our country programmes. In the US, we are helping lead the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, with the states of California, Oregon, and Washington committed to SDG 12.3. This public-private partnership features some of the nation’s largest food businesses alongside local, state, and provincial governments. We leveraged WRAP'S Courtauld Commitment 2030, a successful industry-supported voluntary agreement in the United Kingdom which has been in existence for over ten years. Under this initiative we have a data-sharing agreement with major grocery chains like Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons and Raley on food waste to help provide actionable insights. 

We have an ongoing collaboration with Tesco in the UK who are keen on working with farmers to improve their access to markets. There is also have another ongoing consumer behaviour change study with a major Chinese retailer. From our work, we are seeing more retailers more accountable for their supply chain operations.

4. WWF has gained much attention with its report, 'Driven to Waste: Global Food Loss on Farms. It gave a clearer picture of the scale of food loss and waste from farm to fork. What are some of the critical areas of impact this report has tried to influence for global action and dialogue around food loss and waste?

I want to credit my colleague Dr Lilly Da Gama and the WWF UK team for a great job on this report. One of the most significant takeaways from the report is that we typically underestimate food loss and waste. The Driven to Waste report indicated the globally FLW figure could be closer to 40 per cent as compared to the previously estimated 33 per cent. An estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food go uneaten around the world each year. That is an increase of approximately 1.2 billion tonnes on the established estimates of 1.3 billion tonnes wasted each year. It reflects what we see on farms, in retail and service industries. That's not the direction we would like to go.

The report also challenges our definitions of food loss and waste. We have long associated farm stage losses as a more significant issue within low-income countries- less affluent regions, with lower levels of industrialization.  However, higher- and middle-income countries, with 37% of the global population, are responsible for 58% of global harvest losses, while low-income countries were responsible for 54% of farm stage post-harvest losses. 

Still, the report reminds us that contract negotiations along the supply chain are human decisions. To reform our markets, we need to educate all the stakeholders to inform their decision making to reduce systemic overproduction and improve data-sharing.

5.To build a consensus, you've worked with many private and public sector organisations over the years to try and understand their levels of awareness and action on food waste. What are some of the best opportunities to be leveraged through better public-private engagement (PPE) for better nutrition?

Two areas that require investment and attention from public and private actors are building a circular economy as well as infrastructure: climate-smart technology and cold chain storage.

We have lived in a world of constant economic and land use expansion, and that human activity can no longer be sustained. An imperative is addressing planetary boundaries to avoid reaching tipping points of irreversible damage. Most of the biodiversity loss that we see is due to agriculture (estimated at 70% of biodiversity loss is associated to agriculture). We must look at agriculture differently with food loss and waste as the foundation for action.

WWF has a unique perspective on this; our number one goal for food systems thinking is to stop deforestation, stop tilling grasslands and stopping the expansion of agricultural land. If we restricted the expansion of agricultural production, the impetus would shift to reducing food loss and waste because we would need to maximise the utility and return on current farmlands.    

6. How has this work changed your mind or surprised you? 

Despite all the evidence, data and climate consequences, it’s baffling that we don't have enough financial commitments invested in circular-based solutions to improve waste management and address food security issues. 

7.What new opportunities exist for collaborative action on international food loss and waste protocols?

We need to ensure that we have effective markets and alternative market channels like food banks to ensure that food goes to its highest use-nourishing people. Food banking is an excellent alternative outside our usual supply chain that strengthens food security. A great resource is the Global Food Donation Policy Atlas which shows the food donation policy landscape across the world. It identifies and explains national laws related to food donation and shares best practices for overcoming common legal barriers to more significant food donation. I am glad that the United States, was among the first countries to offer liability protections for food donations, and still maintains one of the strongest protections.

Food waste landfill bans are also a key to building circular economies and curbing methane emissions in local and national jurisdictions. By channelling investments to safe food recovery solutions, we can reap the benefits of improved soil health, nutritious diets, and natural gas and animal feed production. It is possible to develop profitable food systems from all the nutrients we are burying in the ground.

We must see governments committing to SDG 12.3 as part of their climate reduction goals. At COP 27, we are leading an initiative to get 123 governments and companies to commit to SDG 12.3 of halving their food loss and waste along production and supply chains by 2030.

8. Working with the realisation that food systems, nutrition, and the environment are inextricably linked, what novel perspectives do you think the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27) might present?

It is great to see that agriculture and food systems are being addressed as a critical climate issue, and for the first time, there will be a food Day at COP27 on November 12. But also, I think that we should remain grounded because discussions around food and agriculture are not a silver bullet. We need more finances directed to the event's outcomes and pledges. At the same time, I am hopeful that food will continue to feature in future COP agendas and discussions.  

9. Tell us about your favourite meal.

I have come to appreciate that many cultures around the world value upcycling leftover ingredients, which is an effective "clean fridge" strategy, which is one of the reasons I love paella. I am also a fan of Indian food.  I love spicy food.


Guest Profile

Pete Pearson works on food waste prevention and food recovery, helping businesses understand the intersection of agriculture and wildlife conservation. For almost a decade, he has been working as a change agent within various businesses and non-profits on regenerative agriculture, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). 
Pete has led local and national sustainability programs within the retail grocery sector across 2,000 grocery stores in 37 states. He also has over 10 years of technology experience with companies including Hewlett-Packard, Accenture and Albertsons. He has worked with public schools and hospitals as an independent sustainability consultant, co-founded a non-profit focused on sustainable agriculture, and has also co-produced a documentary film on local food production. Pete currently lives in Washington DC and enjoys fly fishing, boating, and exploring the outdoors with his family.