Canada fared well in a new report analyzing the G20’s performance on food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutritional challenges. It scored points in the air category of sustainable agriculture, “due in part to its strong policies in place for climate change mitigation and adaptation,” and stood out for its “strong policy response” to food waste and approach to reducing it along the supply chain.
Shared with Argentina, Australia and the United States, Canada has set the most ambitious target for reducing food waste among G20 nations: 50 per cent by 2030, which is in line with one of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals.
Titled “Fixing Food 2021: An opportunity for G20 countries to lead the way,” the authors of the report — a collaboration between the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) — analyzed a subset of the Food Sustainability Index (FSI). Established in 2015, the index measures the sustainability of food systems across the three aforementioned pillars.
Canada may have come out on top — along with a handful of other countries including Japan, Australia, Germany and France — but as Katarzyna Dembska, researcher and nutrition advisor at the Barilla Foundation, underlines in an interview with the National Post, it’s all relative.
“The index is constructed on a scoring basis. So, we have the lowest score that is zero and the highest score that is 100. No country scores 100 in the overall scoring and in the three different pillars,” says Dembska. ”So this means that yes, if we are a country that scores high, definitely there is still very much room for improvement.”
In 2019, people living in G20 countries wasted more food per capita than the weight of a large car (2,166 kg). As detailed in the report, the average Canadian generates 79 kilograms of household waste every year; more than the average American (59 kg) and slightly more than the average person in the U.K. (77 kg).
One-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which comes at an environmental cost. Food loss and waste amounts to roughly six per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions — around three times that of aviation. While three-quarters of the G20 countries have comprehensive plans for reducing food waste, the report notes, none provided information as to how or when it will evaluate the success of reduction targets.
If the world is to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals by 2030 — which it is currently not on track to do — “food systems need transformational change, which in turn requires leadership,” Martin Koehring, regional lead (EMEA) for sustainability, climate change and natural resources at the EIU, said in a webinar announcing the report. “We need bold action, clear commitments,” added Dr. Marta Antonelli, head of research at BCFN.
Coinciding with vast quantities of food being lost or wasted all along the supply chain, world hunger has increased. As a planet, we produce enough food, says Dembska, yet between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020 — roughly 161 million more than 2019 — according to the recently released “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report. The zero hunger finish line has moved further away; achieving sustainable development goal No. 2 in less than a decade presents even more of a challenge.
“Sustainability is a very complex issue,” says Dembska. “But at the same time, the way that we consume and produce food can be a powerful leverage to achieve the sustainable development goals, from addressing zero hunger and making food accessible and available for all, to addressing climate and environment targets.”
Recovering from COVID-19 and simultaneously addressing the climate crisis in food systems will take collaboration, commitment and coordination, Antonelli said in the webinar, as she emphasized a sense of urgency: “Food systems today are at a crossroad that requires immediate action.”
While a sizable portion of the world’s calories are going to waste and an increasing number of people aren’t getting enough to eat, residents of G20 countries consume three to five times the recommended maximum intake of meat per day (28 grams), the report states. The FSI doesn’t seek to “condemn entire food categories as responsible for a very complex problem,” Dembska highlights, but this figure can be used as a point of reflection.
With due consideration given to frequency and portion sizes, meat can be part of a healthy and sustainable diet, she explains: one that’s mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
“There needs to be consistency between agricultural policies and food policies that promote health and well-being of the population. And what we see, unfortunately, is very often a very siloed approach: the two policies in agriculture and health moving at different paces and in different directions,” says Dembska. “We see that, for example, in subsidies towards foods that should be consumed less frequently in a healthy and sustainable diet, such as meat.”
The affordability of a diet that’s both healthy and sustainable is a major issue, the report details, especially in countries such as Argentina and India, which are low-scoring in this category. High-ranking countries aren’t exempt from affordability and nutritional challenges, Dembska underscores. They simply have fewer people who are malnourished or overnourished, and have more robust policies and interventions aimed at addressing the issues.
“Half of the global population is either hungry or overweight, so malnourished in different forms,” she adds. “Half of the people on a global level can’t afford a healthy and sustainable diet.”
Statistics like these bring home the severity of the situation, which might be discouraging to some, Dembska says. But by collectively making modifications — such as reconsidering the amount and frequency of meat consumption, or being more conscious of wasting food at home — “I am sure that we can generate a significant change.”
Addressing global food security and nutrition is especially important in light of the pandemic, which has worsened a number of food system issues. “The findings of the FSI show that progress is being made across the three pillars towards sustainable food systems,” said Diana Hindle Fisher, senior analyst at the EIU, in the webinar. “However, the pandemic has demonstrated that these improvements are fragile.”
In addition to its three pillars, this year’s index also factored in how to make food systems more resilient. “G20 countries have a responsibility to realize that we can’t go back to normal or business as usual,” Danielle Nierenberg, president and founder of Food Tank, said in the webinar. “That normal left us incredibly vulnerable and in order to build back better, we need to view agriculture as the solution.”
In November, the EIU and BCFN will release the full 2021 index, including 78 countries and covering 92 per cent of the world’s population. The authors hope that their new G20-focused FSI will “shape discussions” leading up to September’s UN Food Systems Summit and October’s G20 Summit in Rome, Italy.
As a group of the world’s largest economies, the G20 has a crucial role to play in the sustainability of food systems, says Dembska: “Not only in terms of large impacts — since we’re talking about countries that comprise 60 per cent of the population and 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions — but also because they can truly lead by example.”