international analysis and commentary

Food security and food waste, a conversation with Dan Glickman


Truly understanding the complex challenges facing the world in terms of long-term food security takes a multi-disciplinary approach. That’s exactly what the Aspen Institute’s Food Security Strategy Group (FSSG) does. We talked with Dan Glickman, Honorary Chair of the program, Former US Secretary of Agriculture (1995-2001) and Former Congressman (1977-2001), about the most difficult obstacles to sustainably feeding a growing world population and about the pressing issue of food waste.

Mr. Glickman, The Aspen Institute is doing some very important work through its Food Security Strategy Group. In fact, members of the group participated in The Aspen Forum at Expo in early July 2015, which was organized by Aspen Institute Italia. We know that the group explores the premier food security challenges facing global leaders in the long term. Could you tell us about the group’s approach?

The area of food security is one that a lot of people are involved in now because we had these food price spikes and food shortages during the late part of the last decade. We have all of these conflicts in the world like in Syria and South Sudan and we have climate and weather that may impact the ability to feed a hungry world sustainably. Aspen has the ability of convening people from different walks of life, different backgrounds, while most groups bring all farmers together or all agribusinesses together or all governments together. But Aspen has this history of bringing people together from different lines of work – from the private sector, the NGO world, the foundation world, government sectors, academic sectors – to talk about food issues, food security, hunger, nutrition, but do it in a broader sense so that we can look at these problems and figure out how to best solve them over the longer term. And that’s what’s missing from a lot of the other groups. So we have old politicians like me, we have young entrepreneurs, and we have a lot of people from the business world. So that is the great difference that Aspen offers.

Could you touch on some of the challenges the group is analyzing?

How to better coordinate humanitarian responses in this world, that’s a huge challenge. We don’t have enough money and resources from governments to help in Syria and other places on a humanitarian basis so we’ve got to figure out how to get a better funding model to help people who are hurting. How do we help smallholder farmers grow more and become more productive to the extent to become more self-sufficient? How do we finance agricultural research to help people cope with climate and weather and other related issues? How do we finance agriculture better so that people in the developing world can actually get the resources and the money to grow and build themselves? Those are just a small piece of a million different challenges.

The Aspen Forum at Expo took place during Women’s Weeks at the Milan Expo where there is a distinct interest in the link between food insecurity and women. In fact, we know that most hungry people in the world are women and girls. How is the FSSG taking this into consideration?

The majority of the smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women. They’re growing most of the crops. So, women are particularly susceptible to poverty and hunger in the developing world. Women’s education is a key part of this issue of trying to build an agricultural system where they can be more economically self-sufficient. Women in agriculture are at the core of dealing with the issue of food security.

On a separate note, just a few days ago, I called for the next secretary general of the United Nations to be an experienced woman in food security. In all of the years of the UN, since 1945, we’ve never had one woman secretary general and yet women’s issues are so critical to development and anti-poverty fighting worldwide – whether it’s an agriculture issue or a non-agriculture issue. So we’ve tended to under-focus on women’s issues over the last few decades and now I hope we can begin to turn that around.

I read a recent blog written by you for Aspen on food waste. You talked about how 1/3 of all food produced worldwide is wasted either in the production or consumption phase. How is that possible?

It is a tragedy and there are different reasons for it. In the developed world, like in Europe and the United States, the food waste is largely a result of affluence or marketing of products. We have these “sell by” dates, and so people see the dates expired and they tend to throw the food out when it’s not necessary to do that in many cases. We waste about the same amount, percentage wise, in the developed world as they do in the developing world. It’s just done for different reasons. In the developing world, the waste is often because there’s no refrigeration, no storage, no constant source of electricity where you can connect refrigeration, bad roads, or very poor marketing systems where people don’t know how to get their crops to market better. The problems are real, but the solutions are real too. The US government, the private sector, even the European development agencies, are working on issues like power in Africa to get more electricity into the developing world. Electricity and roads are actually two of the major ways we’re trying to deal with this food waste issue.

In your blog you also talked about the environmental risks involved in food waste. Could you talk to us about that?

First of all, if you think about all of the food we are producing, much more food than we are using, just think of all of the carbon that’s going into the atmosphere to produce food that is being thrown away. So that’s a contributor to certainly methane in the atmosphere and theoretically to global warming. Then once it’s thrown away, what you do with it is it’s recycled and it’s used for energy and for other forms of positive things. But if food is just thrown away it just contributes to excessive garbage and theoretically to pests and diseases and that kind of thing. So, this is certainly part of the environmental challenges that agriculture is facing all over the world. It is not the primary challenge. The primary challenge is, frankly, in some cases the overutilization of pesticides and fertilizers and in some cases the underuse of pesticides and fertilizers. And the need for technical training of farmers to get them that much more comfortable with good environmental techniques.

As a Former Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture, you have years of experience on the topic of food waste. Could you please talk to us about the most effective solutions you have come across?

I was actually most effective as a Congressman, where I highlighted the issue locally in connection with food waste from a major corporate cafeteria, and facilitated the salvaging of about 300 meals a day with the help of local anti-hunger groups and the local Kansas health department. At USDA, we had a formal food recovery unit, which facilitated and funded local efforts at the farm level, and at the restaurant, catering and hotel levels, to salvage food. Congress also passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act during my time as USDA Secretary, which created a national set of good faith standards that could be met to safely donate surplus food. We also created a national “gleaning” effort with various farm groups.

You were invited to speak at The Aspen Forum at Expo on agribusiness and trade, with a special focus on TTIP. What was your core message at the event?

My core message on TTIP was that notwithstanding the legitimate differences between the EU and the US on some key trade matters, it is too easy to forget that much of the developing world, in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, does not have the luxury of debating the fine points of TTIP and other trade agreements and they struggle with feeding themselves sustainably. Often, what I call the full stomach caucuses of the developed world (EU and US) often forget how trade restrictions and protectionism can hurt people trying to grow and export their own food. By 2050, we will need to more than double food production, which means that open markets, and free and fair trade, will be required to avoid hunger and malnutrition. So while I agree with the policy objectives of the United States in these trade negotiations, I think the rhetoric and narrative of both the US and EU often ignores the practical food and agriculture needs of the developing world.