Cities Need to Lead the Fight Against Food Waste

Italian researchers lay out a framework for where to start.

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food market in Rome
Food market in Campo dei Fiori, Rome, Italy.

Stefano Montesi - Corbis / Getty Images 

Tackling food waste is one of the most pressing environmental issues right now. It's thought to be responsible for up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, though that number climbs to 37% when every aspect of the food cycle – from agriculture and land use to transportation, storage, packaging, retail, and loss – is taken into consideration. If the annual water footprint of wasted food were to be quantified, it would measure 60 cubic miles (250 cubic kilometers) or five times the volume of Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy. 

Urban settings are major drivers of food waste, but that means they can also be effective problem-solvers. With this in mind, a group of Italian researchers from various institutions, backed by the Centro Euro-Mediterraneo sui Cambiamenti Climatici (CMCC), embarked on a study that analyzed the role cities play in fighting food waste. Cities may occupy only 3% of the world's landmass, but they consume 70-80% of its food. By analyzing 40 cities across 16 European countries, the researchers devised a framework for assessing effective food waste initiatives.

The research project had three main components. First was for the researchers to familiarize themselves with the pre-existing work on urban food waste. They found that there isn't much; most research and policy on food waste has focused on the national and international levels, with less attention paid to food waste policies at the municipal level. This is unfortunate because the local level is where real change can happen.

There are some great examples of cities making effective changes. Senior scientist Marta Antonelli referenced the city of Milan, which has pledged to halve food waste by 2030 and has approved a waste tax deduction for businesses that cut food waste by donating any surplus. Other cities such as Genoa, Venice, Bari, Bologna, and Cremona have been successful at tackling poverty and hunger through expanded food donations and have created new jobs with these initiatives.

The second component of the study was to create a framework that city officials can use to fight food waste. The need for broader coordination was continually repeated throughout the study, i.e. the creation of a common definition for food waste, and a consistent methodology for measuring it. A problem has to be mapped out in order to be fought. The EU's newly adopted Farm to Fork Strategy goes in this direction, but the study authors call for new metrics that can compare actions.

These metrics are crucial to help coordinate the many players in the fight against food waste, such as public local authorities, retailers, school cafeterias, hospitals, food markets, NGOs, and individual citizens. "All these actors and levels of governance need to work [together] to ensure effective urban food waste policies," the authors write. 

These actors need to engage in campaigns to raise public awareness about food waste; nudge consumers toward better, less-wasteful behaviors; offer fiscal incentives to companies to stop wasting; set targets for food waste reduction, such as pledging to reduce it by a certain percentage each year; and encourage the food industry to sign pacts with food institutions to reduce waste voluntarily. 

Finally, the study authors call for all urban initiatives to align with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were set in 2015 and are intended to be achieved by 2030. Food waste management has an impact on many other sectors – from clean energy generation, to climate change action, to socio-economic empowerment – all of which are part of the SDGs. So, going forward, all policies should be based on the SDGs in order to ensure that a city is working toward a common global goal in the most effective way.

The message is clear: Together we can do this, but we need a better approach because the current one is too piecemeal, too arbitrary, if well-intended. This study is a good place for local governments to start.