Davos Agenda

Why reducing food loss is key to a more sustainable future

Japan's total food loss and waste in 2020 alone was 5.22 million tonnes. Image: Unsplash/Alison Pang

Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Japan's food loss and waste in 2020 came to a total of 5.22 million tonnes – about 1.2 times the amount of food donated by the UN World Food Programme that year.
  • A series of commercial, technological and governmental initiatives are seeking to address the problem, which is a contributor to climate change.
  • Consumer awareness and consumption behaviour are major factors behind food loss, and taking action in our daily lives will have the greatest effect.

Food loss continues to be a widespread issue, posing a challenge to food security, the economy and environmental sustainability. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan’s food loss and waste in 2020 was roughly 5.22 million tonnes.

That translates to a daily average of around one rice bowl full of food waste per person – or roughly 136 grams.

Notably, the total figure is also 1.2 times the amount of food aid (4.2 million tonnes) provided by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) in 2020.

‘One-third rule' in the food industry

In Japan, there is a business practice called the ‘one-third rule’ that persists throughout the food industry.

Under the practice, food makers or wholesalers should deliver products to retailers within the first one-third of the product’s shelf-life, and retailers are only allowed to sell products in stores for two-thirds of the time before the expiration date.

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Similar rules exist in the United States and Europe, but when compared to the one-half delivery deadline in the US, three-quarters in the United Kingdom and two-thirds in France, Japan's freshness standards are noticeably more stringent.

While this rule has the advantage of delivering fresh and safe food to consumers, it is one of the particular causes of the large amount of food loss that occurs in the food distribution process in Japan, as food cannot be delivered or sold after this deadline.

In Japan, food makers or wholesalers should deliver products to retailers within the first one-third of the product’s shelf-life. Image: Unsplash/Peter Wendt

Japan's unique obsession with freshness

This practice was created in response to the high freshness orientation of Japanese consumers who desire products that are as fresh as possible.

Although there is no provision in the Food Sanitation Act that prohibits both customers and restaurants from taking home leftover food, most restaurants in Japan do not offer customers to take home their leftovers due to excessive concern about the risk of food poisoning.

Consumers also tend to have higher expectations for the overall quality of food products, including freshness, and tend to be demanding over slight blemishes on products, package tears or missing items.

Changing consumer attitudes and behaviour and increasing tolerance are thus essential to curbing food overproduction and waste.

Food sharing platform to reduce food loss

Kuradashi operates an online shopping site that buys food products that cannot be sold through regular sales channels and sells them to consumers at low prices, making it its business to address food loss.

The products handled by Kuradashi are diverse, including foods with approaching expiration dates, ‘ugly’ agricultural products, seasonal products, and products with scratched or soiled packages, and more than 300,000 members use the service. Products sold in the online store are up to 97% discount.

The service is unique in that both producers, who can reduce disposal costs and improve the image of the company, and users, who can purchase products that have been spared from disposal at low prices, benefit from the service. In addition, a portion of the purchase price is donated to social contribution organizations.

This system, which embodies the business philosophy of ‘sanpō yoshi’, or ‘three-way satisfaction’, between the seller, buyer and society, is a sustainable business model that is less affected by the economy or corporate performance.

Data supports food product development

ITOCHU Corporation, one of the leading trading companies in Japan, has developed FOODATA, a service to support food companies in their effective utilization of data in the process of product planning and development.

This data analysis tool combines food-related data on flavour, nutrition, raw materials and other food elements with the company’s human data on ID-POS, awareness and consumer behaviour and tastes of up to 8 million consumers, visualising the results of its analysis.

This enables food and beverage manufacturers to develop products based on evidence and to speedily bring to market new products that accurately meet the diverse needs of consumers.

By preventing mismatches between consumer preferences and products, the service indirectly contributes to the reduction of food loss.

Government initiatives to tackle food loss

In 2019, since the enactment of the Act on Promotion of Food Loss and Waste Reduction law, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has been encouraging food industry management to relax the ‘one-third rule’ and thoroughly review delivery deadlines.

A survey conducted in October 2021 found that 186 retailers have relaxed delivery deadlines.

In addition, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has been promoting efforts to reduce food loss through school lunches.

The school lunch has great educational significance as a living teaching material for effectively promoting children's health and teaching them about food by providing nutritionally balanced meals.

By using 'ugly' agricultural products that have been discarded in the past for school lunches through creative cooking methods, and by incorporating local products as ingredients, school lunch development teams are simultaneously reducing food loss and promoting local production for local consumption.

These efforts also provide an opportunity for children to learn the value of food.

Changing consumer behaviour for the future

Although there is a growing sense of urgency about climate change as the most pressing issue facing our planet, it is not widely recognized that food loss is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change.

Food loss emits carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted and produces methane, which is 25 times more potent than CO2 when buried in the ground.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that food loss and waste contributes 8% to 10% of our GHG emissions, which is roughly the same amount as emissions from cars.

It goes without saying that laws and systems, as well as business initiatives, are essential to building a sustainable future of food.

However, the fundamental factors behind food loss are consumer awareness and consumption behaviour. Recognizing this fact and taking action to reduce food loss in our daily lives, even if only a little, will have the greatest effect.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Davos AgendaAgriculture, Food and BeverageFood Security
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