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Opinion: Let’s not waste COP 27’s chance to close the surplus food loop

Originally written by Lisa Moon and published on Devex on 11/11/22.

For many low- and middle-income countries, climate action often competes with more immediate priorities, such as rising food insecurity, which is increasingly affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions.

Yet, far from being mutually exclusive, these goals can instead be complementary. Food banks, although traditionally more associated with providing routine emergency assistance, are supporting those most affected by the changes wrought on our food systems due to climate change. 

From providing an immediate response to climate disasters to helping communities adapt to the long-term impact of changing seasons and harvests, food banks are among the unsung heroes on the front lines of global climate action. They also play a key role in tackling the 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions that originate from food loss and waste, by redistributing food to the most vulnerable communities.

For instance, in 2021 alone, food banks in nearly 50 countries prevented 1.7 million metric tons of carbon emissions, at the same time helping to connect 39 million people to safe and wholesome food that would have otherwise gone to waste. 

Addressing dual challenges

With the right support, there is still significant potential to double down on the role of food banks in addressing the dual climate and hunger crises, particularly in LMICs, at the same time. That’s why, at the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference and beyond, countries should commit to making food donation and redistribution a foundation stone in their climate strategies, particularly in mitigating emissions and supporting vulnerable communities in adapting to climate stress. 

To begin with, countries should include actions to reduce food waste in their climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. Despite the clear contribution of wasted food to global emissions, just 21 countries currently make reference to the reduction of food loss and waste in their NDCs.

This is a clear oversight from the global community, as roughly one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted, with every metric ton of wasted food contributing harmful emissions into the atmosphere. How this waste occurs lacks uniformity across the world, with low-income countries facing greater food loss and waste due to post-harvest losses — food that could have otherwise helped address urgent hunger and nutritional issues.

Food loss and waste reduction and the key role of food banks in delivering this in specific contexts worldwide must therefore be included as part of NDCs if the world is to deliver effective climate action and achieve more sustainable food systems.

In addition to strengthening their NDCs, countries should prioritize adopting policies that better incentivize and support food donations and the front-line role of food banks in redistributing food. 

The need for more effective policies

At present, the full potential of food banks in reducing food loss and waste to feed communities and address climate change is hamstrung by ineffective policies that prevent — or do not provide sufficient incentives for — food donation and redistribution. To remedy this, countries should adopt a range of policies, as recommended by The Global FoodBanking Network and The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

For instance, countries should adopt clear government guidance on food safety procedures for donated food, adopting distinct food safety requirements that apply exclusively to food that is donated for redistribution.

Alongside this, countries should also adopt standardized date labeling for food products, avoiding overwhelming complexity and providing clear guidance for consumers and food businesses on how to interpret date labels of food intended for donation.

Crucially, governments must continue to offer strong incentives that ensure it is more economical to donate and redistribute — rather than waste — food. Providing tax incentives for in-kind donations, such as tax deductions or credits, as well as offering liability protection for food donations, are vital tools to reduce the environmental impact of wasted food while ensuring the most vulnerable communities do not go hungry.

Finally, countries should also seek to incorporate food banks into their understanding of food systems more broadly. After all, food banks take many shapes and forms across the world based on the unique needs of each community, and their role cannot be reduced to the provision of emergency assistance alone.

Instead, countries should understand, appreciate, and further incorporate the many different faces of food banks into our food systems — from ensuring access to nutritional diets and preventing food loss and waste, to supporting targeted interventions such as school feeding programs. Only then will countries be able to achieve much-needed progress that cuts across all the Sustainable Development Goals.

As negotiators reconvene tomorrow on the Adaptation and Agriculture Day of COP 27, the role of our food systems in climate action — both as part of the problem and the solution — will be high on the agenda.

As we have seen, reducing the food we waste is a vital step forward in achieving our climate goals. Food banks, with their power to rebuild food chains while ensuring otherwise wasted food can instead support communities in vulnerable situations, are among the most important development solutions in our locker today.

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