In the 2022 edition of its annual report on the state of global food insecurity and nutrition in the world, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 811 million people worldwide suffer from hunger.
Additionally, the FAO says, 2.4 billion people—or about 30% of the world’s population—are moderately or severely food-insecure, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as, “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” Rather startlingly, the number increased by nearly 320 million people over the previous year alone.
The report also notes that progress to reduce hunger and malnutrition have been slow in many parts of the world and has worsened significantly following recent global events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, which have disrupted food systems and worsened existing supply-chain vulnerabilities worldwide.
According to the U.N., “Despite hopes that the world would emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and food security would begin to improve, world hunger rose further in 2021,” says the agency’s report. “The increase in global hunger in 2021 reflects exacerbated inequalities across and within countries due to an unequal pattern of economic recovery among countries and unrecovered income losses among those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Eradicating global hunger is a foundational component to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Agenda—the agency’s 15-year plan to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere by 2030—which was adopted by all U.N. Member States in 2015.
Yet, at the current pace, the U.N. now projects that nearly 700 million people will still be facing hunger in 2030—or 8% percent of the world population—which is the same as when the agenda was initially launched eight years ago.
For perspective, consider that the total global workforce is estimated to be around 3.5 billion people, yet roughly one in ten do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. Hunger alone regularly leads to increased absenteeism and reduced productivity in the workplace, as hungry workers may be too weak or sick to work, or may need to take time off to care for sick family members. Even the most efficient business models cannot overcome a workforce dying of starvation.
Within the U.S., the issue is not too dissimilar from an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force.
Consider data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which indicates that the states that have the highest rates of food insecurity in 2020 were Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where more than 1 in 5 households experienced food insecurity.
Mississippi is a leading producer of sweet potatoes and catfish, and the state is home to a number of manufacturing facilities, particularly in the automotive and aerospace sectors. Arkansas is also a major agricultural state, producing large amounts of rice, poultry, and soybeans, and is home to several retail companies, including Walmart, which is headquartered in Bentonville. And although Louisiana’s economy is more diversified, the state is a major hub for domestic energy production, manufacturing, and tourism.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, these three states have a combined GDP of approximately $513 billion USD in 2020, which represents around 2.5% of the total U.S. gross. This sum is greater than the United Arab Emirates GDP ($383 billion) and falls between Poland ($526 billion) and Belgium ($495 billion), and would slot in at number 25 on the list of the highest GDP figures published by the World Bank.
Yet, if hunger and food insecurity reach a tipping point in any of these localities, it could create a domino effect in the labor market, thereby sparking a significant global economic downturn as supply chains are further compressed worldwide.
In short, food insecurity is not a problem limited to the agriculture industry. If your enterprise employs human beings, then the problem is at your doorstep too.
Trimming the Fat
If all this is beginning to feel hopeless, know that is not the case. Although food insecurity is a serious challenge facing our planet, global business leaders have the power and capacity to catalyze great changes while also enhancing their business models by eliminating waste from their supply chains and manufacturing processes.
“I grew up on a farm and know what it’s like to be hungry and undernourished,” says Dr. Shenggen Fan, former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) from 2009 to 2019. “Reducing food loss and waste is a critical step toward this.”
As a leading expert on food security who has published extensively on issues related to agriculture, nutrition, and poverty reduction, Dr. Fan believes that by reducing food waste, businesses can help increase the availability of food for those in need. Yet, before any food waste reduction strategies can be implemented, a company must know the scale of waste they create.
According to Harvard University Office of Sustainability, businesses should consider conducting a waste audit in order to ‘create a baseline reference of your progress from one waste audit to the next.’
Although collecting and sorting food waste may not be rocket science, data does play a key role to identify areas where waste can be reduced or eliminated. By analyzing trends in the types of food waste generated and determining which categories make up the largest percentage of your business’ waste, companies can begin to develop a waste reduction plan based on the data collected, rooting out areas where it’s most needed.
For instance, ReFED, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across the U.S. food system by advancing data-driven solutions, is working to achieve 50% food waste reduction in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. One of the biggest offenders—and perhaps most appealing from a potential cost-saving perspective—is eliminating unneeded food packaging.
“Packaging plays an important role in protecting food until it reaches the consumer… but at the same time, packaging can make it difficult to access content (like condiments), become damaged or fail in ways that cause food to spoil, or lead someone to buy more than they need – all of which can lead to food waste,” according to an article by ReFED on How to Design Packaging to Prevent Food Waste.
ReFED also notes that packaging materials themselves often become waste, contributing up to 28% of what ends up in landfills.
Additionally, a ReFED analysis indicates that, “improving package design could divert more than 1 million tons of food waste and avoid 6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year, [and] solutions in this area would also have a net financial benefit of $4.13 billion.”
Despite such potential cost savings, says the non-profit, many manufacturers and retailers have, ‘struggled to understand exactly how to pursue these changes.’
However, some companies, such as Bonduelle Fresh Americas—a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bonduelle (BON.PA) and home of the Ready Pac Bistro brand—have found success by partnering with other like-minded enterprises.
In 2020, Bonduelle Fresh Americas joined Walmart in the groundbreaking “10x20x30” initiative to root out food loss and waste from the supply chain. The program is led by Walmart with more than 10 of the world’s biggest food retailers and providers, each having committed to engaging at least 20 suppliers in a “whole supply chain” approach to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030.
“Bonduelle is a seventh-generation family-owned business, and sustainability has been one of our core tenets long before it was in fashion. Our actions continue to focus on making a positive impact on people, planet and food with programs driving inclusive hiring, environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, water and waste management, plastic reduction, and so on.” –Andrea Montagna CEO, Bonduelle Fresh Americas
The company has committed to a 50% reduction target in its own operations, to measure and publish its food loss and waste inventories, and to create actionable strategies to reduce this waste. This includes reducing the amount of food waste we create in their facilities, increasing product donations to communities in need, and providing food for animal feed.
For companies seeking to follow suit but unsure where to begin, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC)—a membership-based nonprofit that brings together businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies to collectively strengthen and advance the business case for more sustainable packaging—recently published a guide entitled Best Practices for Designing Packaging to Prevent and Reduce Food Waste.
With members that include Kroger, Procter & Gamble, and Blue Apron, Inc., the SPC guide presents specific design strategies, such as resealability, new portion and pack sizes, plus active and intelligent packaging.
“These may seem basic, but they require [companies] to think beyond merely getting the product to a consumer, and instead embrace the growing movement among businesses toward taking responsibility for consumers’ climate impacts from downstream food waste,” says an assessment by ReFED.
Furthermore, the SPC guide also points out areas where companies may need to navigate tradeoffs between packaging sustainability and food waste.
“On average, only 3-3.5% of the climate impact of packaged food comes from the packaging itself – the rest comes from producing, transporting, storing, preparing, and potentially disposing of the food,” notes ReFed’s assessment. “This proportion can be significantly higher for certain kinds of foods and formats, but ultimately, packaging ‘pays off’ if it helps to reduce waste of the food it contains by at least 4%. This means that even when packaging creates climate impact, companies should prioritize strategies that reduce food waste.”
Sustainability, despite being a buzzword casually used far too often, is yet another way large businesses can play a significant role in reducing food waste and, ultimately, overcoming food insecurity.
For instance, sustainable agriculture practices can help increase food production and improve food access in underserved communities. This includes organic farming, agroforestry, and regenerative agriculture, which can help improve soil health, increase crop yields, and reduce the use of pesticides and other harmful inputs.
While many of these tactics can help close the global food insecurity gap, it is critical that such initiatives are managed by a group of highly engaged, dedicated leaders within an enterprise. This is perhaps one reason corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams have become increasingly commonplace within Fortune 500 companies.
According to a study by the Governance & Accountability Institute, “Over 90% of Fortune 500 companies published sustainability reports in 2019, up from just 20% in 2011. These sustainability reports often include information on the company’s CSR programs, such as environmental initiatives, social impact efforts, and governance practices.”
Beyond the breadth of scope, the actual investment many companies have made into their respective CSR programs is astronomical. According to a report by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, companies in the U.S. spent an estimated $20.05 billion on CSR-related programs in 2020, with the majority of that spending going towards cash donations, in-kind donations, and employee volunteering.
Naturally, the question arises: If so many companies are already spending fortunes to deploy heavily-resourced teams to solve these issues, then why is such little progress being made in key areas such as global food insecurity?
The problem, according to Corporate Citizenship—a London-based management firm focused on responsible and sustainable business practices—is that many CSR programs fail for a variety of reasons, including lack of commitment, insufficient resources, and unrealistic goals.
Without leadership support, says Corporate Citizenship, “CSR initiatives may not receive the resources, funding, and attention necessary to succeed. Additionally, many CSR initiatives require resources such as time, money, and expertise. If these resources are not available or are spread too thin, the initiatives may not achieve their intended impact.”
Lastly, poor implementation—such as ineffective communication, inadequate training, and lack of stakeholder engagement—can hamstring an organization’s ability to catalyze results.
According to Harvard Business Review’s assessment in Five Ways to Improve Your Company’s CSR Efforts, there are key tactics that can be deployed to improve the effectiveness of a CSR team. These include:
- Setting clear goals and metrics that measure progress and demonstrate the impact of their initiatives, which can also help to focus a team’s efforts on areas that are most important to the business and its stakeholders.
- Aligning with business objectives to ensure that activities are integrated into the company’s core operations and are supported by leadership.
- Engaging stakeholders, such as employees, customers, suppliers, and community members, to identify key issues and priorities, as well as create a sense of shared ownership and responsibility.
Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)—a global nonprofit organization that works with its network of more than 250 member companies—says that if a CSR team is focused on solving global food insecurity within their local community, there are several tactics to increase their effectiveness.
According to BSR, companies can raise awareness of food insecurity through campaigns and educational initiatives. One notable example is the “Stamp Out Hunger” food drive organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) in partnership with Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Running since 1992, “Stamp Out Hunger” has collected over 1.5 billion pounds of food to date. The event has been supported by a number of corporate partners over the years, including Campbell Soup Company and The Coca-Cola Company.
Other companies that have raised awareness of food insecurity through events include Walmart, which hosts an annual “Fight Hunger. Spark Change.” campaign in partnership with Feeding America, and Starbucks, which runs a “FoodShare” program to donate unsold food items to local food banks.
Danone, a Fortune 500 multinational food-products corporation based in Paris, promotes sustainable and equitable food systems via its NutriPlanet Program, which is not only designed to build a comprehensive understanding of local nutritional and public health issues within different countries, but is also directly correlated to the goals stated in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Agenda.
Since 2006, Danone has co-financed and supported twelve social businesses on nutrition and water access, including in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, France, Haiti, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Mexico, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Lastly, an authentic focus on sustainability not only solves many of the underlying factors contributing to food insecurity, but the concept overwhelmingly resonates with customers.
“A recent report from Aflac said that 77% of consumers are more willing to purchase from a company with a corporate social responsibility pledge — and 73% of investors agreed,” notes Forbes in a piece entitled How Leading Global Companies Are Using Sustainability As A Market Differentiator.
This carryover effect is not lost on business leaders either. According to one study, “9 in 10 business leaders said consumers would hold them accountable for the environmental impact they make through their business — an even greater ratio than shareholders, employees, or government regulators.”
Securing the Future
It is difficult to predict with certainty if or when global food insecurity may “collapse” as it is a complex and multifaceted issue that is influenced by a range of factors such as climate change, global economics, political instability, and conflict, among others. It is also important to note that food insecurity affects different regions and populations differently, and some communities are more vulnerable to food insecurity than others.
However, what is clear is that the current trends in food insecurity are concerning. The number of people experiencing hunger and malnutrition has been steadily increasing in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the situation in many parts of the world.
To address global food insecurity, it will require concerted efforts from governments, civil society, and the private sector to develop sustainable and equitable food systems that prioritize access to healthy, nutritious foods for all. The goal should not be to wait for food insecurity to collapse, but rather to work toward a future where all people have access to adequate and nutritious food.
Additionally, it will be critical for businesses and leaders to address the problem of global food insecurity, which is both a human-resources issue, as well as a potential time bomb that could impact their customers and employees, and could lead to a host of negative economic fallouts, including price inflation, economic instability, trade disruptions, political instability, and health issues.
By taking these steps now, businesses can help reduce food waste and contribute to a more sustainable and equitable food system.
HOW TO GET INFORMED
Learn more about global food insecurity and related issues through a variety of sources, including:
Reports and Studies: Examples include the Global Food Security Index, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, and the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems.
Non-Profit Organizations: The World Food Programme, The Hunger Project, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Conferences and Events: Examples include the Global Food Security Symposium, the Sustainable Foods Summit, and the Future Food-Tech Summit.
Industry Associations and Trade Groups: Industry associations such as the International Food and Beverage Alliance, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, and the Food Industry Association have valuable resources and insights into food security and related issues.