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Yolanda Kakabadse's call to action on food waste

Published 31 May 2017

By Christopher Au

In a passionate and multifarious lecture, Yolanda Kakabadse, the International President of the World Wild Fund for Nature, articulated the present-day wastefulness of human food consumption to a packed and diverse audience at Imperial College.

It is difficult to fully assess the true cost of food waste, though Yolanda assiduously offered contextualisation through headline figures.  Fundamentally, a third of all food is lost or wasted each year at an economic cost of just under a trillion dollars and assuming 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions.  The environmental impact is costlier, when we consider that agriculture is humankind’s largest demand of water, primarily extracting from lakes and rivers which account for just 0.3% of all water sources on the planet. 

Perhaps most shockingly, Yolanda detailed the scale of degradation wrought upon the Indonesian coral reefs that she recently witnessed.  An incessant demand for food incentivises illegal and unmonitored fishing, undermining these very nurseries of marine life.  Combined with with the real and present impacts of climate change evident today, food waste is putting immense pressure on fragile ecosystems.

Yolanda expressed an ongoing frustration with consumer desire for aesthetically pleasing produce and misleading food labelling.  Conceptions of ‘shiny potatoes’, ‘straight carrots’ or ‘unblemished bananas’ are known to us all but such images are hugely costly as supermarkets seek to solely provide seemingly attractive produce.  Similarly, ‘best before’ recommendations merely serve to increase turnover of purchased food, not necessarily a sinister invention but certainly a wasteful one.   Yolanda accurately captured the mood on this insistence with labelling by exclaiming that “Pasta never goes off” and “Cheese improves with age!!”.  Instead, it was indicated that any individual could do worse than reverting to their senses, assessing food through smell, texture and taste.

Through Yolanda’s recall of personal anecdotes, the audience were treated to a plethora of similarly practical advice.  From behavioural nudges which encourage sensible food consumption, to stories of interaction with national-level decision makers, to students influencing the buying and consumption patterns of their cafeteria, there was an experience or an idea that each audience member could relate to.

In an upbeat tone, Yolanda expressed her delight in the granularity on offer in the Sustainable Development Goals.  As activity coalesces around this framework, the 169 specific targets are tangible and achievable, greatly aiding progression towards a more sustainable relationship between society and the environment.

The frequent nodding of heads across the lecture theatre and throughout Yolanda’s speech symbolises how much of this content is seemingly sensible, yet action on a large, concerted scale leaves much to be desired.  Yolanda re-affirmed that everyone in attendance, like all consumers across the world, are experts on food stuffs and determinants of global food demand.  This was nothing less than a call to action and I suspect several seeds of change have been planted in the fertile minds of the audience.

Yolanda Kakabadse, International President of WWF delivered a lecture at Imperial College London on 18 May, 2017. Chris Au summarised her message. A video of the lecture is available to watch here.

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