Interview with FAO agro-industry officer Robert van Otterdijk

Roughly one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted every year, according to FAO estimates.

Food loss and waste increases prices, reduces the availability of micronutrient-rich foods, and lowers the income of smallholder farmers, who are the major food producers. It also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and the negative effects of climate change.

In Europe and Central Asia, particularly in non-European Union countries, food loss and waste constitutes a vast, persistent and complicated problem, concerning all actors in the food value chains, policies, economies and markets, people’s behavior and culture, social conditions, technology, infrastructure and investments, with particular implications for natural resources and climate change.

This complexity is reflected in FAO’s global SAVE FOOD initiative on food loss and waste reduction, coordinated in Europe and Central Asia by FAO’s Robert van Otterdijk.

Ahead of the LIFE food waste platform meeting on 8–9 October in Budapest, Otterdijk spoke about the current state of food loss and waste in the region. An FAO agro-industry officer, Otterdijk will be a speaker at the event.

What are the main causes of food loss and waste in the region?

The term “food loss” is used for losses in the post-harvest phase. The main causes are insufficient cold storage, poor food preservation and processing capacities (mainly of perishable products), and inadequate production planning and market linkages among suppliers and buyers.

With regard to food waste occurring at the retail, catering and household levels, problems arise from unawareness of the impact of food waste as a result of negligence. Problems also arise from economic drivers – for example, when throwing food away is cheaper than redistributing it – and from food policies, legislation and taxation that are not conducive to reducing food waste.

Who then should address the problem – governmental actors? Or would the private sector be more efficient?

Given that it is mainly the private sector and household consumers throwing away food, only they can reduce food loss and waste significantly. However, the public sector is needed to create incentives and an enabling environment (through legislation and investment climate) for the private sector to act.

Many players are active on this issue in Europe. How are they cooperating, and what is the role of FAO?

As a result of several awareness-raising campaigns on the food loss and waste issue, indeed there are many organizations, institutions and companies addressing the matter. In addition to the value chain actors and government bodies, non-governmental and civic organizations in particular are taking initiatives to reduce food waste. They often establish cooperation among producers, food industry, retailers, charity institutions, and food banks to redistribute food that is at risk of getting wasted. They also organize public events and even develop recipes to help consumers cook food that they otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with, instead of throwing it away.

FAO’s role in the Save Food initiative is to stimulate concerted action, to assist with research and information where necessary, and to gather and share best practices, solutions and resources from around the world.

 What are the main challenges that the SAVE FOOD initiative faces?

Time and cost. The reduction of food loss and waste requires that the private sector take on more responsibility, even if it may be more costly in the short run, and it requires that consumers change their behavior. This applies especially to middle- and high-income countries – paradoxically, the countries that in principle have the resources to take action. Both move slowly, while partners and donors of the SAVE FOOD initiative expect quick results.

One other major challenge is the complexity and high cost of measuring and monitoring food loss and waste accurately.

About the LIFE food waste platform meeting:

The upcoming LIFE food waste platform meeting is being hosted by Hungary’s National Food Chain Safety Office 8–9 October in Budapest. The office’s Gyula Kasza will present an overview of the Hungarian perspective, and István Nagy, Hungary’s minister of agriculture, will welcome the participants.

The goal of the meeting is to explore what can be done to tackle food waste and loss and to contribute towards policy development in this area.