How we can all be Global Food Champions

Richard Swannell, Director, WRAP Global

This year’s line-up for the BBC Food Chain’s Global Food Champion illustrates the complex challenge we face in tackling our unsustainable and inequitable global food system.

Spiritual leader Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was relaxing after a feast at his temple near Calcutta when he heard a commotion out of his window. Looking out he saw children fighting with dogs over scraps of food. He resolved on the spot to dedicate his life to ensuring that no child goes to school hungry.

Nearly 20 years later the charity he founded, Akshaya Patra, feeds 1.7 million children in India every day with a healthy school meal. For many it is the difference between getting an education – the key to escaping a life of poverty – or not. As one pupil told the BBC’s Food Chain, “I feel fresher after eating and feel like learning. When I don’t eat my mind is not at peace”.

The same programme also featured individuals from other amazing projects, both big and small, from across the globe - addressing hunger, building knowledge and skills about nutrition and cooking, and pioneering global projects which are driving research to harness the economic, environmental potential of agriculture.

I became aware of these remarkable people and projects because, much to my genuine astonishment, I joined them as a finalist of the Food Chain’s Global Champion Award for 2019 – the programme’s celebration of those people and projects who are ‘changing the way we produce, consume and think about food’.

It was in recognition for the work that, along with my colleagues in WRAP, I am doing to tackle food waste in the UK and around the world.

And in particular for the success of the voluntary agreements with businesses, such as the Courtauld Commitment, which WRAP spearheaded to tackle food waste across the supply chain, and which we are championing as a model that others might find effective in driving change around the world.

Fittingly, Akshaya Patra was a very deserving winner, but we were all recognised for showing ‘courage and tenacity’ in making a difference.

I felt truly humbled to be in the company of all of them. But what also struck me in listening to their testimonies was how we represented the various facets of the challenge we face in fixing our dysfunctional, unsustainable and inequitable global food system.

Because if there is anything which brings into stark focus the inequality and unsustainability of that system it is being reminded in this compelling way of how millions of people go hungry whilst a third of the food the world produces is wasted. Of how the food that we produce fails to nourish about a third of the world’s population, but is resulting in obesity in another third. Of how food production is responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and how food waste alone if it were a country would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the USA.

What all of us showed is that if we are to have a chance of tackling climate change and the catastrophic consequences which await if we do not reduce global warming, if we are to feed a growing population and address the risks linked to unhealthy diets, then we have to recalibrate the global system of how we grow, distribute and consume food. We need to move to a more sustainable diet which is good for the health of the planet, and the human race.

It is as simple, and as complex, as that.

But as I told the Food Chain, I have detected a discernible shift in awareness and urgency to take on the challenge. And I am genuinely optimistic that we can harness and align the great work of my fellow nominees and millions of others, combine it with government policies and collaborative business action, to galvanise an unstoppable force for change.

I believe we can find a way of joining efforts and tackling the challenge of changing our food system through an interdependent set of solutions. From how we engineer the production of food so that it delivers the nutrients we need, to how we reduce loss and waste across the supply chain, to how we divert as much surplus food as possible to those who need it.

A lot is already happening. In the UK, we have been impressed to see the prominence given to tackling food waste in the Government’s Resource and Waste Strategy. And businesses across the food chain continue to make progress. We’ve seen this through the Courtauld Commitment; the ambitious UK Food Reduction Roadmap launched just last year, and a significant increase in food redistribution.

And on our travels abroad with my WRAP Global team, I can see these efforts being replicated. Through such initiative as the hugely successful REFRESH project which saw 26 partners from 12 European countries and China working to the UN SDG 12.3 goal to halve food waste by 2030, to policy initiatives in Denmark and Germany, to exciting work in Latin America and Africa.

Crucially, though, the answer also lies in all of us. We can all re-evaluate our relationship with food so that it keeps us, and the planet, healthy. I truly think this is one of the most effective contributions we can make to living in harmony with the planet which sustains us.

I was very excited earlier in the year of the findings of some work my colleagues at WRAP did in exploring the synergies in the food we eat and the food we waste.

The results were illuminating and ground-breaking – demonstrating that unhealthy eating and food waste were often the results of the same chains of behaviour, linked to a gap between our aspirations and actions, and also a lack of knowledge and skills. I think there is real potential here to help change our world view whilst providing the practical support citizens need to be able to choose healthy diets and simultaneously reduce food waste.

This needs to happen not just in the already prosperous West, but, critically, in the developing world too.

One of the stories in the Food Chain programmes was a young man whose father was almost forced to remove him from school because he couldn’t manage alone to feed his family. Akshaya Patra stepped in and the boy was able to complete his studies and is today a successful software engineer. Part of the engine force which is driving India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse.

It’s a heart-warming story, and one that it is important to replicate if we are to use food as a power for good.

So we need to ensure that the experience and success that has already been achieved can be shared and adapted to make it culturally and economically appropriate to tackle the complexities of the problem.

I am proud and excited to be part of this global movement for change through the work we are doing in WRAP. And truly honoured to be a finalist and thankful for the opportunity to highlight the global food waste fight.

We can all be global food champions. We can support the efforts of those individuals in the Food Chain awards by taking steps today to help reduce food waste in our homes, by making the best use of everything we buy and spreading the word in our communities. And let’s together find ways to support the developing world become more prosperous without the damaging increase in household food waste that we have seen across the developed world.

Perhaps we can all learn to value our food again in a way which is good for the health of us, the economy, and the environment. I certainly believe we can and we must.