Ensuring Sustainable Agriculture and Security

SAIS MA candidate Erica Shifflett discusses her ideas and target for a sustainable development goal that will ensure sustainable agriculture and food security in the post-2015 agenda.

Photo Credit: Deeba Yavrom

Note: The following piece is part of the SAIS Review‘s first web series on the topic of Sustainable Development and the Millennium Development Goals. For more information, please refer to the Sustainable Development web series page.

By Erica Shifflett

GOAL: Ensure sustainable agriculture and food security.

TARGET: Decrease post-harvest and supply chain loss and waste by X percent by 2030.


Globally, over one-third of all food produced annually for human consumption is lost or wasted among all stages of the supply chain, totaling to 1.3 billion tons.[1] Though developed and developing countries lose food at different points of the supply chain, all wasted food results in squandered resources, such as water and electricity, the release of preventable emissions from utilizing those resources, and increased food insecurity. Economic losses differ between developing and developed countries, but include the loss of income to farmers and demands for more funds spent on disposal and landfills. As development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) progresses, it is necessary to include a goal ensuring sustainable agriculture and food security, with a target of decreasing after-harvest and supply chain food loss and waste globally by x percent. Addressing waste as an SDG will provide the awareness, coordinated actions, and funding necessary to reduce food waste in both developing and developed countries in order to regain the social, economic, and environmental benefits currently being squandered.


Total per-capita human food production in Europe and the United States amounts to 900 kilograms per year (kg/yr), and 460 kg/yr in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.[2] Of this, between 280 and 300 kg of food per year in Europe and the United States is lost or wasted, while 120 to 170 kg of food annually in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia is lost or wasted, notably during different levels of the supply chain.[3] Developed countries waste the largest proportion of this total (40 percent, during the fourth and fifth stages of the supply chain, retail, and consumption) while developing countries lose the most (40 percent, during the initial phases: production, handling and storage and processing).[4] The distinction between food loss and waste is important: food loss occurs early in the supply chain, namely due to lack of infrastructure or cosmetic requirements, while food waste occurs during the retail and consumption stages. Food waste in Europe and America totals 95 to 115 kg annually, but only 6 to 11 kg annually in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.[5]

Primary thoughts regarding effects of food waste generally concern world hunger and food insecurity. One in eight people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger, accounting for more than 800 million people in total.[6] In the United States alone, reducing food waste by only 15 percent would provide 25 million Americans with adequate sustenance annually.[7] In addition, food loss disparately affects subsistence farmers who live on the edge of food insecurity—for whom a crop loss could mean going hungry.

However, lost and wasted food impacts more than food availability and security. Agriculture utilizes a staggering amount of arable land and fresh water, 40 and 70 percent respectively, and is associated with producing one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including 9 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2), 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.[8] Excessive food loss and waste results in the release of preventable emissions and squandered use of dwindling resources. Aside from the aforementioned emissions, wasted food is disposed of in landfills, where it becomes a large source of methane, emitting additional preventable resources. Converting wasted and lost food into economic costs yields annual losses of US$700 billion from natural resource loss, $172 billion from water waste, $42 billion from unnecessarily cleared forests, and $429 billion from preventable GHG emissions.[9] In addition to these environmental losses, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates $150 billion in human healthcare costs from pesticide exposure, $280 billion in loss of livelihoods, and the retail equivalent of one trillion dollars lost yearly.[10]

Many organizations—national, multilateral, and non-governmental—attempt to raise awareness around food waste and loss, particularly its large environmental and economic costs, as well as address the underlying causes in both the developed and developing world. In the developed world, focus is placed on reducing waste in homes and restaurants, namely through voluntary pledges and information on methods to decrease waste, compost, and donate food. For example, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promotes a “Food Recovery Challenge” which provides technical assistance and planning to businesses that commit to reducing food waste. A voluntary food waste reduction target of 30 percent was established by the European Union’s Waste Framework Directive to be attained through country specific waste reduction plans. However, further communications regarding decreasing food waste have been blocked from release by the European Commission.[11] Efforts in the developed world are small-scale, voluntary, and ineffective, and food waste has not decreased.

In the developing world, food loss occurs due to lack of infrastructure, such as storage facilities and roads, as well as food processing and handling facilities.[12] In addition, market systems are often inadequate and lack necessary infrastructure for cooling and storing products. Though infrastructure issues in the developing world are well known, lack of funding, stable political systems, knowledgeable technical assistance, and adequate technology are all barriers to reducing food loss.[13] Incremental progress is being made towards alleviating these issues by multilateral and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), however food loss has also not decreased substantially in developing countries.


Food waste and loss is frequently overshadowed by other, more pressing, issues, such as food security, climate change, and poverty. However, ensuring the inclusion of an SDG that addresses food waste can produce results on the very priorities by which it is overshadowed, many of which are also currently part of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs). Incorporating food loss and waste as an SDG will assist in raising awareness, coordinating action among stakeholders, and aligning funding and resources towards achieving the goal and target.

Raising Awareness

Most importantly, inclusion of food waste and loss as an SDG would raise awareness of the costs and squandered resources associated with food loss and waste. Awareness is necessary among all stakeholders, including individual consumers, businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations, and multilateral organizations in order to effectively progress towards achieving the goal. Directing attention at the issue is also essential for promoting coordination and collaboration among stakeholders, raising funding, and providing the incentive for increasing data collection and research in order to fully understand and quantify underlying causes. In addition, increased awareness would demonstrate the far-reaching effects of reducing food waste on other priorities, particularly the benefits of investing in infrastructure to assist in reduction, such as roads, on other priorities.

Coordinating Action among Stakeholders

Increasing awareness among all stakeholders creates the ability to coordinate action among these stakeholders. Coordinating action is essential as the causes of food waste and loss vary between stakeholders and, thus, addressing each cause requires consolidated efforts. For example, coordinating action between farmers could reduce the production of surplus crops or could allow small farmers to consolidate, diversify, and upscale production in order to qualify for large agricultural loans.[14] Coordination among large groups of stakeholders could also help reduce the effects of trade barriers and tariffs in agriculture through scaling up production and producing enough to export, while also bringing attention to the effects of these policies on smallholder farmers.

Aligning funding and resources

Decreasing food waste requires substantial investment, particularly in developing countries, to address infrastructure and technological causes of food loss. Raising awareness will help send market signals to private donors and investors to draw funding for infrastructure needs or awareness campaigns. It would also signal the need for financing to multilateral organizations, as well as the need for technical assistance in implementing food loss and waste reduction plans.

Goal and Target

The following goal and target are being proposed for inclusion in the Sustainable Development Goals:

Goal: Ensure sustainable agriculture and food security

The above qualitative goal seeks to promote sustainable agriculture, defined as “the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.”[15] It also strives to attain food security, defined as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”[16]

Target: Decrease post-harvest and supply chain loss and waste by X percent by 2030

In order to ensure sustainable agriculture and food security, the above quantitative target seeks to progress towards the aforementioned goal through a reduction of food waste and loss. Direct linkage between sustainable agriculture, food security, and food loss and waste is drawn from the decreased resource use associated with reduced food loss and waste, as well as the increased food supply. Implementation will involve multiple stakeholders, including multinational agencies, national governments, municipal or provincial governments, communities, and individuals. Multilateral agencies are essential for continuing to provide awareness, as well as funding for necessary infrastructure projects, while national governments should establish targets and provide technical assistance in the form of best practices. Determining how best to achieve national targets should be under the purview of state and municipal governments, as they are most knowledgeable of currently available resources and pathways for implementation. Multilateral organizations and national, state, and municipal governments are also instrumental in coordinating and directing funding. In areas lacking the bandwidth and human capital for implementation, non-governmental organizations should step in to provide technical assistance. Finally, buy-in from individuals and communities is necessary for actually reducing the amount of food waste, as well as integration and acceptance of new farming practices or new disposal methods, such as food recovery and donation.

Success should be measured as a series of benchmarks every three years, though data should be gathered by municipal governments, or NGOs where capital is lacking, on a monthly basis. Data should account for losses through each of the five supply chain phases, where possible, in order to determine the total amount of food lost and wasted. In areas where data is not available, efforts should be focused on methods to obtain necessary data for identifying causes. Progress towards the target should be shared with the public, along with additional methods for further reductions for individuals and businesses, in order to continue raising awareness.  The inclusion of food waste and loss as an SDG would have far-reaching effects on social, environmental, and economic issues, while assisting in attaining goals and targets concerning other priorities.

Erica Shifflett is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.



[1] “Food Waste Facts,” United Nations Environment Programme, accessed November 11, 2014, http://www.unep.org/wed/2013/quickfacts/.

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste, (Rome: United Nations, 2013), available from http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e.pdf.

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste.

[4] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste.

[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste.

[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World Executive Summary (Rome: United Nations, 2013), available from http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3458e/i3458e.pdf.

[7] Natural Resources Defense Council, Wasted: How America is Losing 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, (New York CIty: NRDC, 2012), available from http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.

[8] “Livestock a Major Threat to the Environment,” FAO, accessed November 11, 2014, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/News/2006/1000448/index.html.

[9] Hoffman, Beth. 2014. “The Shocking Cost of Food Waste,” Forbes, April 11. Accessed November 12, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2014/04/11/the-shocking-cost-of-food-waste/.

[10] Hoffman, Beth, “The Shocking Cost of Food Waste.”

[11] “EU Commission Drags its Feet on Food Waste,” EurActiv, accessed November 13, 2014, http://www.euractiv.com/sections/agriculture-food/eu-commission-drags-its-feet-food-waste-308545.

[12] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste, (Rome: United Nations, 2013), available from http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e.pdf.

[13] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste.

[14] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste.

[15] “Definition,” Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, accessed November 12, 2014, http://www.saiplatform.org/sustainable-agriculture/definition.

[16] “Food Security,” World Health Organization, accessed November 13, 2014, http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/.

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