Juan Carlos García y Cebolla is Leader of the Right to Food Team of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Most cultures have created taboos and norms that prevent food waste. At the same time, social mores have reserved for occasions of celebrations or hospitality a code associating the abundance of food, in quantities much higher than normal, with concepts such as generosity and honour.–
In the last century, along with technical and productive advances and social transformations, taboos have gradually disappeared or lost their effectiveness, and the notion of celebration has led to increasingly common and unconscious manifestations of opulence and neglect.
On the other hand, the food chain has been transformed, multiplying the number of operations and actors, and becoming much more complex. In many cases, the resulting search for ever lower costs has led to a reduced workforce and the assuming of a higher percentage of loss and waste, as occurs with fruit that is damaged by careless handling in self-service retail.
In the last decade, there has been growing concern about the scale this unsustainable behaviour has reached.
One third of the food grown is lost or wasted every year. This amounts to a staggering 1.3 billion tons of food, which would be enough to feed 2 billion people in the world, and negatively affects climate change, poverty and trade. In turn, this has an important impact on the right to adequate food of broad sectors of the population.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our dynamics. In addition to the damage it has caused to daily life, it has exposed these systemic problems and the need for urgent changes in the way we manage the planet and its fruits, including food loss and waste.
Although disruptions to the food supply chain are – for now – relatively minor overall, measures imposed by States to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus have generated obstacles typical of distant times: from cultivation and harvesting, through transport and storage, up to consumption.
Mobility restrictions (closure of roads and borders, and delays due to mandatory controls) prevent or delay the transport and distribution of goods, resulting in agricultural products that spoil or are not sold due to their low quality. Changes in demand reduce the income of producers, especially small farmers or those living in remote rural areas.
On the consumer side, families with lower purchasing power find it even more costly to access fresh and more perishable foods, such as fruits or fish (leading to unhealthier diets and long-term health costs).
During the pandemic, access to food is not only a problem for the poorest, but also in many cases for people with greater resources who have traditionally been able to afford fresh products of high nutritional value and healthy diets. Among them, the at-risk population, or elderly or chronically ill people, who have to stay at home.
The pandemic has taught us that in times of crisis, it is not only essential to ensure the flow of non-perishable food, but also the linkages between consumers and producers. This facilitates access to fresh foods and healthy diets for all, as well as maintaining demand and sustaining local production, and in turn combating food loss and waste.
To date, we have witnessed the rapid implementation of initiatives to address these challenges.
In Spain, the municipality of Valladolid helped to set up safe home delivery of ‘zero kilometre’ or local foods that have not travelled far after production. The Government of Oman has transformed the fish auction markets from a physical marketplace to a digital platform, where market workers upload photos of the catch and wholesalers, retailers and restaurants can view the daily offer and place their orders online.
Even before the pandemic, the South African “Second Harvest” program, led by a non-profit organization, allowed commercial farmers to donate to vulnerable people the post-harvest surplus produced directly from the farms and distributed with refrigerated vehicles, preserving their quality and nutritional value.
The 2021 Food Systems Summit, convened by the United Nations Secretary General, will be a great opportunity to rethink how to improve access to healthy diets and income for small producers, as well as reducing loss and waste.
In the face of future crises, responses cannot be improvised. We have to be prepared and incorporate a vision of prevention and risk reduction. Political measures should quickly restore market access, so that the knots in the food chain are not broken.
They must also prioritize the well-being and livelihoods of all people, especially those who live in fragile contexts. Only in this way can we mitigate the impact of the crisis, reduce food loss and waste and contribute to the realization of the adequate right to food.