COP27 Dispatch: Food Waste Gains Attention in Climate Discussions

Food waste is a major driver of climate change and a cause of food insecurity. Penn’s Steven Finn highlights the challenge and solutions discussed at COP27.

Experts from the University of Pennsylvania are on the ground at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. In this special series from Energy Policy Now, they share their observations from the global climate conference and insights into key issues under negotiation.

Steven Finn teaches in Penn’s Organizational Dynamics program. He discusses the role that food waste plays in driving climate change, and in contributing to the global challenge of food insecurity.  Steve also examines the growing focus on food security within the COP framework and innovations that seek to reduce the food system’s environmental impact while meeting the demands of a growing global population.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and to this special series on COP27 which is underway in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Over the two weeks of COP, I’m holding short conversations with experts from the University of Pennsylvania on a number of priority issues that are being discussed at this year’s Global Climate Change Conference.

Today I’m talking with Steven Finn, who teaches in the Organizational Dynamics Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Steve’s work focuses on reducing food waste, which is a major source of global warming gasses and a factor in food insecurity. We’ll be talking about discussions relating to food security at this year’s COP. Steve, welcome to the podcast and welcome back from COP.

Steven Finn: Yes, you too. Thanks, Andy.

Stone: I hope you fared better than I have in regard to jetlag on the return trip.

Finn: I’m still feeling it a little bit, as well.

Stone: Yes, it was easy going over. It’s a little tougher coming back. I wonder if we could start out here. We’re going to be talking a lot about food, food waste, food security. But I wondered if you could start us out by talking about your role at Penn and the work focus that brought you to COP.

Finn: Sure. As you noted, I am affiliated faculty in Organizational Dynamics, which is within the LPS School at Penn. We focus on topics in organizational culture, leadership, innovation, and change, really geared toward helping individuals evaluate and navigate the complexities of the global workplace, with an eye toward improving workplace dynamics and driving positive change. In my mind, there’s no more important change effort for organizations than incorporating sustainability into strategy and workplace culture. So that’s what drives me.

I develop and teach courses within our Sustainability concentration, under a broad frame of Innovation for Sustainability. My personal and research focus is in food systems, specifically around a challenge of how we will solve feeding 10 billion citizens in a sustainable manner within planetary boundaries by 2050. And within that, I focus on food loss and waste reduction, and the linkage between food waste and the Sustainable Development Goals.

I teach courses on the Food/Water Energy Nexus, on Water Security, Sustainable cities, and Fundamentals of Sustainability, all with an emphasis on collaborating for sustainability, as well. We even run one of them as a summer course in Italy with key partners there. On my research side, I collaborate with colleagues on papers and topics related to food waste. I also maintain a blog called “Food for Thoughtful Action,” which has monthly posts on food system issues and really is a resource for my students.

One last thing — I also serve as VP of Sustainability and Public Affairs for Leanpath, which is a technology solutions provider, helping food service providers prevent the occurrence of food waste in their operations through measurement, data analytics, and behavior change.

Stone: What stands out about your week at COP in relation to this whole food ecosystem that you’re interested in?

Finn: It was really great to be there because this was the first COP where food was on the agenda, if you will. That has not been the case in prior COPs. It was sort of on the surface last year, kind of on the edges, but not distinctly on the agenda. So this year, one of the reasons that I really wanted to be there was knowing that food was on the agenda and that there would be a Food Systems Pavilion housing a lot of these topics. I was excited to be there and to be a part of that.

Stone: So you mentioned transforming the food system. What are some of the factors that are involved in that?

Finn: Yes, there are so many to deal with. I’ve been developing, evolving a lot of themes on this of late. One of the first things I think we need to do is really recognize the opportunity to advance sustainable development in a massive way by transforming the food system and by leveraging the nexus aspect of food. The fact that we can reduce waste, for example, and activate this multiplier effect where we drive progress towards other goals, as well. And I think we really need to embrace that opportunity. We have a real choice here. We can act, we can save our planet, or we can fail to act and leave the consequences to our youth and future generations.

I also think we need to understand and embrace the current reality. We’re currently at an inflection point in the food system. We’re all seeing the impact of climate change in an inequitable food system at this point. The IPCC continues to show the pathway we were on, noting that climate change will continue to put pressure on food production and access, and will further threaten food security and global nutrition.

So it’s really clear that we need to act. Every fraction of a degree matters, and there’s real urgency here. We need to envision a new future, one where we can provide sufficient healthy food for all the global citizens by 2050, and again, within planetary capacity. In other words, achieving the healthy people/healthy planet balance.

Stone: In the conversation you and I had in Sharm El Sheikh, you pulled out some pretty stunning statistics that I was not aware of, of just how much food gets wasted. We talk about food waste being a big problem, but give some of those numbers. How bad is the problem, really?

Finn: Yes, food waste is really an issue of considerable scale. We are losing and wasting anywhere between one-third and one-half of global food production annually. That is a pretty staggering amount. Anyway, it’s estimated to be about 2.5 billion tons of production going to waste annually. That has a considerable effect on the environment, of course, and is a missed opportunity to feed people. The food system is estimated to account for just over a third of global GHGs, hence the obvious reason for food to be on the agenda at COP today. If you’re wasting 30 to 50% of food, then obviously food waste is on the agenda, too. And WWF has recently estimated that food loss and waste alone accounts for 10% of emissions, and there is an oft-reported statistic from UN-FAO that really captures the attention of a lot of people, which is the fact that if you were to rank food waste as a country, it would be the third largest emitter of global greenhouse emissions, behind the U.S. and China.

So from an emissions standpoint, there is a clear connection between food and climate, and food deserves to be on the agenda at COP. I was glad to see that it was. And also clearly from a hunger issue, we should be talking about food in this stage, as well. We are experiencing over 800 million people in a state of food insecurity today, all while we are wasting over 2 billion tons of food annually. So that is just such a massive disconnect. We really need to question that and fix it.

Stone: And is the implication here that if that food weren’t wasted, it could be sent to areas where it’s needed? Or is there something inherent about the food system itself, where the food is just not getting to people that it needs to get to because of the waste that’s inherent, and I guess the whole food value chain?

Finn: Yes, we have this cycle of overproduction and waste right now, particularly in the developed world. Because we are wasting so much food due to this culture of abundance that we have related to food, that in turn goes back up and leads to excessive production, right? So we have this cycle of producing more food than we need, routing it through our system, eating some but wasting a lot of it, and then sending the balance to landfill, where it decomposes and contributes methane gas which is an extremely harmful gas through emissions.

So if we can prevent a significant portion of that food that is currently going to waste, we can achieve great environmental impact from the emissions standpoint, but also — and this is an aspect that doesn’t get enough attention, I think — but we can also free up societal resources and human capital to then address the root causes of hunger and the root causes of poverty and these other linked issues. And that’s a really important thing and an aspect that I don’t think gets enough attention in this space.

The other part of that is obviously the redistribution aspect, right? There’s a substantial amount of food that we have today that could be efficiently redistributed to those in need, and we all know of many agencies in the developing world that are doing that. We should seek to obviously route as much edible food and also add healthy edible food to those in need, as we can. And if we can’t do that, then of course there’s a hierarchy of approaches that we can take to route some of that food to animal feed, for example, to produce other food products for us. Or we can send it down lesser paths of environmental harm like composting or digestion.

Stone: I understand that you made a pledge while at COP related to food waste reduction. Can you tell us about that?

Finn: Yes, that was really a fun part of the trip, too. And for a quick background, the overriding frame for global food loss and waste reduction today falls under Sustainable Development Goal 12, which is on responsible consumption and production. That goal is Target 12.3, which calls for cutting food waste in half by 2030 and reducing food losses along supply chains. That target was enacted in 2015, and now here we are in 2022. We’re about three years into what’s called “the decade of action for progress against the Sustainable Development Goals.” But in terms of food loss and waste reduction, the world is well off-track.

We had great momentum on the awareness side in food waste from 2010 to 2020. I kind of refer to that as “the decade of awareness-raising.” But the pandemic, while underscoring the many frailties of our food system, really set us back. We were set to enter 2020 in this action phase to reduce food waste around the world. There’s a really perplexing aspect to this sector that I often find. I speak about all of the global drivers being behind food waste reduction. I think I mentioned this to you in Sharm. It reduces financial costs. It reduces environmental impact. And it frees resources to address other societal problems. And there’s this nexus issue of food waste that’s really critical to know, right?

If you prevent the occurrence of food waste, you reduce emissions, you reduce water usage, you reduce your impact on soils, you cut plastics pollution, you reduce pressure on forests and biodiversity loss. I could go on. And again, you free resources and human capital to address core issues of hunger and poverty and such. But we’re not moving fast enough. We need more governments to step up and implement national strategies for food waste reduction. And we especially need business leaders across the food sector to step up and make bold, authentic commitments to cutting food waste in operations. And that’s what the 123 Food Loss and Waste Pledge for Climate Action is about. It’s about accelerating action, spurring organizations, governments, and individuals to make bold, measurement-focused commitments to cutting their food waste by 25% in this case by 2025.

And importantly, to report on their progress annually with transparency. And that reporting piece is big and something that I speak about often because it puts teeth to the commitments. As many people would say, it makes you think about greenwashing — you have to report on it.

So I was really happy to make a pledge to educate hundreds of citizens on the scope and scale of the food waste challenge, through my courses, through my blog, through by webinars by 2025. So I will report on that going forward and keep track of the impact there. I also made a pledge on behalf of Leanpath, my company, where we committed to work with client partners to prevent an amount of food waste equivalent to 50 million pounds by 2025.

So I’m excited about the pledge, excited to see how it does what it is intended to do, which is to spur action, to get people to step up.

Stone: Going from that point, I want to go back to what we were talking about, some key steps to reduce food waste. You started to talk about that, but can you go a little bit deeper on that issue?

Finn: Yes, I think getting back to that issue of broad culture change. We have this culture of abundance towards food here in the U.S. and in the developed world. When it comes to food, size really matters to us, right? We expect large portion sizes. We equate value with size. We also expect perfection, right? Blemish-free, perfectly uniform fruits and vegetables. We expect a tremendous variety on a 24/7 basis. So food is really ubiquitous to us. It surrounds us, and it’s also relatively expensive. And so if you couple that with our purchasing mindset, we fill up big refrigerators and big pantries. We’re confused by date labels. And the fact that we have cheap disposal and easy disposal — you have all the drivers for this culture of food waste, and hence we waste about 40% of our food here in the U.S.

So at core I think it’s really important that we recognize we’re disconnected from our food like never before. We’ve lost touch with how it’s grown, we don’t understand what’s involved with bringing it to our plates, and we have normalized behaviors related to excessive waste. And this fuels that cycle that I was talking about of overproduction and excessive waste. So we need to engineer this broad culture shift, to where we’re de-normalizing food wasting behavior, and we’re normalizing food waste reduction behavior. And it’s really essential. There’s nothing sustainable about a system in which we’re losing or wasting 40% of production, for example.

I mentioned before we’re exceeding our planetary boundaries now, and we’re failing to successfully feed over 800 million people today. As you noted, we’ve just passed 8 billion; we’re on our way to 10 billion in 20 years, so we have a challenge to provide nutritious food for 2 billion more, and we need to do that within planetary boundaries. So we have this enormous challenge ahead, and really I think so much starts with changing this culture of excessive waste in our developed world.

So there are many things to do here, governments enacting national strategies and plans for food waste reduction, with the goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. And it’s really important that they back that with measurement and transparent reporting because we can’t manage without measurement.

Stone: Obviously all this was being discussed at COP. What were some of the key takeaways you took from the conference on food issues?

Finn: Yes, so many, and they keep coming. For one, I think it was really pivotal that food is on the agenda at COP, as it should be, as we talked about food central, critical to everything that we do. The food system accounts for such a large chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions, so if we’re talking about mitigating climate change, we have to talk about food. And by extension, if we’re wasting so much of it, we need to talk about food waste, as well.

So I was thrilled that this COP had a really busy Food Systems Pavilion covering many topics that are central to transforming the food system — nutrition, soil health, waste, resilience, climate-smart agriculture, and on and on. I was also struck by the action focus of this COP. I am interested if you felt that too, Andy?

You really felt a pulse. I thought there was an undercurrent of energy for action throughout the COP. And to me, I think that stems from the fact that people increasingly get the urgency, in part because of this continued stream of such great research from groups like the IPCC, but also because of the sheer visibility of the impacts of climate change. We’re all seeing the impacts in myriad ways — fires, floods, drought, rising hunger, migration. We’re seeing the toll. We’re hearing great messaging, important messaging from the U.N. As Secretary Guterres noted, “We’re on a highway to hell, and we can only change that through action.”

Along with action, I think the collaboration imperative. The sheer enormity of the climate challenge is clear, so I really liked the Together for Implementation hash tag, “BehindtheEvent,” because this challenge really requires all nations to come together. There’s no doubt about that. And yet right now we have so many global forces that are driving the opposite — climate change fueling hunger and mass migration, and in turn fueling nationalism and this “us” versus “them” mindset. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine even involves the weaponization of food, and so we’re at this point where after years of decline, we’re seeing the global hunger numbers increasing. And when you consider all of the technology and the connectivity gains of recent decades, that’s really nonsensical. Why would we accept that?

We need to recognize all of these connections that we saw in COP. This rise in nationalism that’s blocking the needed collaboration to address climate change and feed insecurity and all of the SDGs. As a result, it’s really destabilizing global security, and we need to flip that because climate change will only create more social and societal disruptions. There is really colossal opportunity here, I think, by collaborating to address climate change and food insecurity, nations can really come together and create a more secure world. I always come back to, “Who wouldn’t want that, right?”

Another takeaway that you probably saw was the power of stories. I think this COP was billed as “The Africa COP,” with a lot of attention to the responsibility of the developed world to enable a just transition for Africa and the less developed countries. When you walked around, you really saw considerable messaging on that, which I thought was great.

Stone: Yes, I want to say that’s where I feel personally I learned the most from this COP. I deal so much in policy and talk about that big top-down perspective, but really in so many ways, learning what local communities are doing, and their perspectives — I mean that was really rewarding for me to hear all that from this COP.

Finn: Yes, and the power of youth, to see that strong youth presence at this COP, as it should be, right? As youth and their children, they’re going to inherit this planet. So we need them involved in the decision-making. They have a much more vested interest than I do at this point, being further along in age.

I’ll add one more thing here. In addition to those learnings from all those pavilions, I think the learnings from the various sessions that we were in, right? And I love to listen to the small countries — the SIDS, the Small Island Developing States — make their comments. And I was just struck. I mentioned this one to you while we were there, Andy. The President of Palau who was referencing his comments from last year about climate change in which he said, “In terms of Palau’s experiences, you might as well have bombed us.” That’s the impact of climate change on them. But as they try to recover from COP, they’re being drawn and quartered by extreme storms and sea level rise and extreme drought. And they’re in danger of losing their tourism industry as a result, which is so central to their economy.

So I think it’s really important to hear and embrace these stories from the frontlines. These countries seem very distant. Their problems seem far away, but we need to overcome that distance gap because these countries aren’t responsible for what they’re experiencing. And further, what they are going through is indicative of what’s going to spread to other nations. So I think that’s really important.

Stone: Steve, thanks very much for talking.

Finn: Thank you so much, Andy. I enjoyed it.

Stone: Thanks for listening to this special episode of the Energy Policy Now podcast, recorded at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Check out Energy Policy Now on the Kleinman Center website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And to keep up with research and events from the Kleinman Center, visit our website.

Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day. 

Steven Finn

Affiliated Faculty, Organizational Dynamics
Steven Finn teaches in the Organizational Dynamics program at the University of Pennsylvania and Vice President of Food Waste Prevention at Leanpath.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.