The International Role in Reducing Food Waste

As the introduction highlighted, food waste is indeed a massive sustainability issue with global consequences. It is therefore imperative to investigate what role the international scene could play in reducing food waste.

The general approach


Most initiatives focus on solving food waste problems one country at a time and neglect the possible benefits of tackling the issue at an international scale. Such strategies might seem logical given the apparent lack of global governance and the risk of applying silver bullet solutions to something which is inherently contextual dependent. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that the globalization of trade has stretched many, if not most, agrifood value chains across several countries and continents.

The international nature of the food value chain

2A study made by Iowa State University estimates that the average American meal travels 1500 miles from field to fork (Pirog et al., 2001). Given the size of the US and the climatic differences within the country it might be reasonable to think that much of this food could be from within the country, but in another study it was estimated that the average meal in fact contains at least five ingredients from outside the United States (NRDC, 2007). This demonstrates both that some food travels extensively, and that the agrifood business is indeed international in nature and should thus also be addressed as such.

A new approach

In 2014 the United Nations’ agricultural organization published “Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction” (FAO, 2014), in which they argue for an integrated food supply chain approach. This approach recognizes that food waste in one part of a supply chain can be caused by another part of the chain. FAO furthermore states that strategies and solutions for waste reduction need to be profitable, or at least cost-effective, if they are to be integrated in the value chain.


Such logic seems reasonable given that economic considerations rule decision making in an unregulated market. But at the national level markets are generally regulated in order to adjust for possible market failures or political agendas. In France for example, legislation now prohibits supermarkets from spoiling and throwing away food, as they now have to give this to charity (The Guardian, 2015).  Though such policies could have enormous global potential, the international scene has so far been institutionally crippled by the difficulty of working across political boundaries.

The untapped potential

4The international level has, however, proven effective in the agenda setting arena. For 15 years (2000-15) the Millennium Development Goals was the overarching development framework for the world, and despite some shortcomings, it did manage to bring attention and focus to specific problems. Recently a new set of goals were presented for the coming 15 years. Unfortunately, despite the title now being Sustainable Development Goals, these goals still don’t hold any explicit focus on reducing food waste! This seems especially surprising as the strategy holds a subtitle5 called “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” (UN, 2015). The subtitle even holds eight sub-targets, but none mentions reduction of food waste as an explicit goal.

Food waste takes place throughout the value chain of agrifood products. But unless it’s profitable, it’s unlikely that internal processes in the value chain will pursue such reductions. Institutional constraints at the international level further limits the legislative possibility of effectively addressing the issue, as much food waste is caused in, or by, parts of the value chain external to national legislation.

Given these circumstances it’s hard to understand why the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals doesn’t include food waste as an explicit goal, as agenda setting is currently the most efficient way for international action on food waste.


About the author

Jacob is a graduate exchange student from Roskilde University, Denmark, currently studying at department of Agriculture, Food and Ressource Economics, Michigan State University, USA. Professionally Jacob is engaged in national and international climate and energy planning, through his position as adviser in the Danish Energy Agency.

Besides work Jacob is deeply engaged in sustainable development work through both politics and non-government organizations. This combined with an upbringing on a dairy farm in rural Jutland, Denmark, have brought about an in-depth knowledge and personal engagement in the question of sustainable agriculture and food production.


FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2014. Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Available at:, accessed 05.12.2015

Guardian, the. 22.05.2015. France to force big supermarkets to give unsold food to charities. Available at:, accessed 05.12.2015

NRDC – Natural Resources Defense Council. 2007. Food miles: How far your food travels has serious consequences for your health and the climate. Available at:, accessed 05.12.2015

Pirog, R., Van Pelt, T., Enshayan, K., Cook, E. 2001. Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, USA. Available at:, accessed 05.12.2015

UN – United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2015. Sustainable Development Goals. Available at:, accessed 05.12.2015


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  5. UN – United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2015. Sustainable Development Goals. Available at:, accessed 05.12.2015