In 2023, we saw a big burst of activity in the fight against food waste, all of it setting up 2024 to be one of the most consequential years yet to make real progress in meeting our reduction targets. As ReFED does every year, we’re providing our thoughts on some food waste trends to keep an eye on in the months to come:
- Methane Reduction Means Food Waste Reduction… This past year, we saw the continued prioritization of methane reduction as a key “emergency brake” for climate change – at COP28; with the United States and China committing to methane reduction targets in their November 2023 Sunnylands Statement on climate change; in methane reduction being included as one of only six climate-related commitments to come from last January’s North American Leaders Summit (with food loss and waste called out as a separate commitment); and more. Then as the year came to a close, new EPA research showed for the first time that food waste produces the majority of methane from landfills – an important confirmation that further elevates food waste reduction as a critical climate solution for 2024 and beyond. Expect more focus on food loss and waste from those looking to pull the emergency brake on climate change. (And be on the lookout this summer for an update to the ReFED Insights Engine’s Impact Calculator – made possible by a grant from The Global Methane Hub – which will enable users to see the percentage of their food waste-related greenhouse gas emissions that come from methane, so that they can target the proper hotspots.)
- More Solutions Funding… Food waste solution providers, as well as businesses and nonprofits in other sectors, struggled to raise capital in 2023 due to the ongoing investment downturn. But while interest rates will likely remain high for at least part of the new year, a survey of members in the ReFED Food Waste Funder Circle shows that they expect to deploy more funding to food waste solutions in 2024, relative to 2023. Additionally, “Reducing Food Loss & Waste: A Roadmap for Philanthropy,” a new report launched at COP, outlines specific recommendations for philanthropic funding that can help reduce food loss and waste on a global scale, which we anticipate will catalyze more philanthropic dollars in the sector. ReFED’s own experience in receiving a grant from Ballmer Group at the end of 2023 bears this out – it’s a serious investment from a top climate investor looking for year-over-year change. And as food waste reduction continues to be recognized more broadly as a top solution to climate change, investors that focus on impact will play a critical role in partnering with businesses that might have longer, steadier growth trajectories in an environment where market dynamics would typically favor only the fastest growing start-ups.
- AI Advances Progress… While it seemed like the world was learning about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for the first time last year, the technology has been applied to food waste reduction for a while. (See this case study from the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment demonstrating more real-world progress.) AI is currently being used to track waste and streamline processes, but advancements in image recognition and customizable user experiences – something that the larger food industry is already making use of – could be game-changing for food waste across the entire supply chain, not just in the data-heavy retail and foodservice sectors where most activity has been happening so far. We don’t expect AI and machine learning to be the “silver bullet” that solves the food waste problem once and for all, but we’re excited to see its long-term potential. And low-tech or no-tech food waste solutions – like reducing portion sizes and increasing consumer education – will remain high on priority lists because of their potential impact.
- A Unique Year for Policy… With the pending presidential election expected to stall legislative activity in Washington during the latter part of 2024, we’re expecting a lot of movement in the first half of the year – most notably around the Farm Bill, which received a one-year extension in a stopgap funding bill in late 2023. We’re also hoping the Biden-Harris Administration moves quickly on finalizing the “Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics,” which was released at the close of 2023. (The public comment period was just extended to February 3.) But it will be critical that the initiatives outlined actually receive enough funding to be implemented at an effective level. (We’re especially thinking about a national consumer education campaign here.) And while more activity has been happening on the state and local levels, once new laws are enacted, communities will have to remain vigilant to ensure that they aren’t stalled or even rescinded – as in California, where SB 1383 faced calls for a pause to its implementation, as well as across the country in New York City, where the Mayor’s Office cut funding for the city’s composting program. Programs like these are still new, and the solutions they scale can mean big changes to the way things have always been done – making it imperative that governments provide the necessary education and incentives to help ease any potential burdens related to their implementation.
- Business Action – Not Just Commitments… New laws establishing mandatory climate-related reporting requirements for large public and private companies doing business in California and the European Union – plus the potential for similar disclosure requirements at the federal level in the United States – mean that pressure is building for businesses to actually demonstrate real progress in reducing their climate impacts and not just make empty commitments. For food businesses in particular, acting on food loss and waste initiatives stands out as a cost-effective strategy for reducing emissions, and we were excited to see real progress from businesses like Ingka Group/IKEA (with a 54% food loss and waste reduction), Kellogg’s (42%), and Ahold Delhaize (33%) in the Champions 12.3 Progress Report released last September. Collaborations between businesses are essential – one business alone can’t solve the food waste problem – and public-private partnerships were specifically mentioned in both the EPA/USDA/FDA Draft National Strategy and the recent philanthropic funding roadmap as scalable initiatives that work. And with the recent launch of the U.S. Food Waste Pact – a voluntary agreement built around the “Target, Measure, Act” framework to drive results – and the ongoing impact of regional efforts like the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, food businesses have the opportunity to rise to the occasion and make real change.
As we start the new year, we look forward to keeping an eye on these trends. And while any prediction comes with a certain level of uncertainty, we’re confident that support for reducing food waste is at an all-time high. We’ll be checking in on these trends throughout the year, including at our annual summit in June – which we predict will be our most exciting yet!