The Pacific Coast of North America represents the world’s fifth largest economy, a region of 55 million people with a combined GDP of $3 trillion. But like most of the world, it has a big food waste problem. The Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) has joined key players from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and the cities of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles to build a low-carbon economy, and food waste is one of its main focuses.
Pete Pearson, senior director of Food Loss and Waste, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and lead of the Pacific Coast Collaborative Food Waste Reduction executive committee, discusses how the PCC is going about reaching for its ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 80% by 2050—specifically focusing on how businesses and government have begun working together to attack the food waste piece.
Waste360: How is the PCC going about reaching its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050? And can you explain the relevance of working collaboratively across cities, states and provinces?
Pearson: We back up our commitments with regional action to transform our power grids, transportation systems, buildings, and economies while increasing resilience to a changing climate.
By connecting jurisdictions at the regional level — and connecting states and provinces with cities in the region — the PCC facilitates collaboration on issues that cross borders and jurisdictional boundaries, such as grid integration, a comprehensive electric vehicle charging network, and responding to ocean acidification. We pool policy and technical expertise, share strategies to curb greenhouse gas emissions while growing the economy, and work together to implement them.
Waste360: Tell us about the West Coast Voluntary Agreement to Reduce Wasted Food, and why it was set up as a component of the PCC
Pearson: In the U.S. today, up to 40 percent of all food grown and produced is never eaten, and nearly percent of that amount is generated by consumer-facing businesses like supermarkets, grocery stores, and restaurants. It’s an enormous waste of environmental resources, including freshwater and cropland, and is responsible for more than one-fifth of all landfill volume. It’s also a major factor impacting the climate – in fact, the 2020 Drawdown Review from Project Drawdown ranks “reduced food waste” as the #3 solution to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile millions of people are currently struggling with food insecurity – a number that Feeding America reports could grow to more than 54 million this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Food that is wasted could have gone to feed this growing population, providing resources and saving money.
That’s why the Pacific Coast Collaborative has launched the West Coast Voluntary Agreement to Reduce Wasted Food. It’s an easy way for food retailers throughout British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and the cities of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles to work with their suppliers to help cut the amount of food wasted in the region by 50 percent by 2030, which is in line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions goal and Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 from the United Nations.
The Voluntary Agreement is a commitment to share data and to contribute to working groups that hope to accelerate reduction of food waste. Our core group of initial signatories should be applauded for their willingness to look beyond waste being a “competitive” issue. Food waste should always be pre-competitive, where we all recognize waste cannot and should not be tolerated from farm to fork with so much at stake.
If it remains a competitive issue and we don’t succeed in making food waste reporting transparent, we won’t solve the problem. And if transparency can’t be achieved via voluntary industry working groups, I think governments will need to contemplate making this transparency required. Obviously, voluntary action is ideal, and I’d like to see it become reality, but the reality is some businesses are not ready to share data. The reporting framework the PCC has developed is anonymized and aggregated reporting – we’ve taken the risk out. It’s extremely business friendly.
Waste360: What, specifically do you hope to see these voluntary groups of businesses accomplish?
Pearson: With these food businesses, the idea is that we can develop working groups within industry segments and pilot interventions and policy issues that represent challenges to our end goal of reducing waste. This is all about accelerating progress. Industry working groups are nothing new, but this is about having near real-time data to fuel our innovation and interventions and having the right mix of partners to actually execute change.
Waste360: What are the greatest inefficiencies in the food system and how do you think they should be addressed?
Pearson: I want to reiterate the massive and most important goals we (the people of this planet) have to address: We must freeze the footprint of agriculture. And we must end waste.
These two goals are connected and imperative if we hope to have a planet that can sustain a growing and more affluent human population. Our future food system is linked to the health of functioning ecosystems. Right now, approximately 70 percent of biodiversity loss is at the hand of agriculture’s growing global footprint. This isn’t about slowing biodiversity declines, it’s about starting to move things in the opposite direction – we have to be regenerative by freezing the footprint of our agricultural systems. Freezing the footprint of food will require that we address inefficiencies (i.e. loss and waste) and it will require a broad analysis for what kinds of diets and farming techniques will be sustainable and regenerative long-term.
Waste360: How does PCC’s food waste work fit in with the overarching mission of the PCC?
Pearson: The vision of the PCC is to “dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a vibrant, low-carbon regional economy by transforming energy systems, buildings, transportation, and food waste management.” The PCC has recognized that food waste reduction can have tremendous carbon reduction results, if we can measure it and move measurement to prevention and recovery efforts.
Waste360: I understand that dairy and produce were chosen as a starting point for working groups. Why is that?
Pearson: We chose dairy and produce as a starting point for working groups for two reasons. First, dairy has a high carbon and environmental footprint and addressing and preventing this food waste can achieve some of the largest carbon reduction. Second, the produce working group is trying to leverage work that WWF has been facilitating for over four years through our No Food Left Behind series of research. We have an amazing set of partners and portfolio of work we can leverage, and working on the West Coast can put it all into action.
Waste360: How is bringing all these regions together intended to benefit who?
Pearson: In five years, the majority of food waste in this country should be going into circular systems and never landfilled. We need bold goals – like 95% of food waste diverted from landfill in the U.S. in five years. The West Coast and this PCC effort can immediately provide the blueprint from which to work from and adapt scaling across the country. This is because states and cities have prioritized this circular system and can start working on true reduction because they can measure and divert food waste from landfill. San Francisco has been doing food waste diversion for over 20 years.
I hope my kids look back on the practice of landfilling waste as one of those inefficient practices from long ago. If my grandchildren are still landfilling waste in the future, then we didn’t do our job, and the future health of our planet will suffer greatly. The planet benefits by executing carbon reduction efforts and food recovery and rescue can benefit tremendously. WWF and PCC members are actively working to leave no food behind and make sure it goes to people, leaving only inedible food waste to be put into a circular economy where it’s recovered for animal feed, renewable natural gas, energy, compost, and soil nutrients. Addressing and getting obsessive about ending food waste will also help us to address material waste and recycling/reuse efforts (paper, plastic, etc).
My hope is that this work scales immediately to other states and becomes a national infrastructure project with financial aid from city, state, and federal governments. We have a great model that is free and open for everyone to use. And many of our existing signatories (i.e. Albertsons and Kroger) are already operating in 35+ states across the country. At this point it’s all about urgency. We need to get on with it.
Waste360: What have been key barriers to reducing food waste in these regions represented by the PCC?
Pearson: Business participation and transparency is the single biggest barrier. Not all companies that have been recruited to participate in the PCC have accepted this important challenge. As I mentioned, waste has to be a pre-competitive issue, and we have no more time to stand idle. Everyone must act, we can no longer kick the can down the road.