Chemicals and waste are integral to our everyday life, but they also have major impacts on the environment and human health. As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, the sound management of chemicals and waste is becoming ever more important.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) works closely with governments, international organizations, industry and civil society organizations around the world to develop mainstream solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste.
As the world focuses on International Women’s Day, here are some examples of how women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the unsustainable management of chemicals and waste, and have an especially high stake in global sustainable development.
In many countries, women may be asked to handle the management and disposal of household waste, which could expose them to highly toxic substances that may significantly impact their health and that of their families.
Women and girls make up nearly half of all agricultural workers in developing countries and could be at an increased likelihood of mishandling chemicals and pesticides due to higher illiteracy rates as compared to men.
Cultural norms may also put women and girls at risk from potentially unsafe beauty and hygiene products, especially women of colour in some part of the world who are more likely to use products containing toxic substances, such as skin whiteners and specialized hair products.
“Addressing the unique needs and circumstances of women when developing sustainable solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste is of paramount importance,” says Dina Abdelhakim, gender focal point for the UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch.
“Compared to men, women have vastly different exposures and interactions with chemicals and waste in their daily lives. It’s been estimated that women are exposed to over 160 chemicals every day through personal hygiene products. If you also factor in exposure to household chemicals and waste as well as workplace exposure, the chemical burden on women becomes significant. This, combined with differences in their physiology and their role in child bearing and rearing, means that failing to address gender differences neglects the needs of half of the world’s population as well as of future generations. To effectively mainstream gender issues into the chemicals and waste agenda requires that countries are consistent in collecting gender disaggregated data, and use that evidence to make informed decisions and policies at the national level.
This is why it is even more important for meetings such as the Fifth session of the International Conference for Chemicals Management scheduled for October 2020 in Bonn, Germany, to take into account gender aspects and vulnerabilities, as commitments on chemicals and waste are made for the beyond 2020 agenda.
Sustainable Development Goal 5 focuses on achieving gender quality and empowerment for all women and girls. This starts with education: girls are significantly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which play a crucial role in sustainable development, and make up only a little over a quarter of all researchers worldwide. Therefore, empowering girls to launch careers in the sciences is vital to create a significant change.
“Policy must be underpinned by excellence and innovation in science to move society in the direction of greater sustainability,” says Monika Macdevette Chief of UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch. “One of the best ways to push for that change is to involve women and girls in the process, from primary education to the most influential decision-making bodies. Let’s start today, so we can ensure a bright future for the girls born tomorrow.”
How food waste is trashing the planet
18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, an international celebration of local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. That last part is becoming increasingly important. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found the world is in the grip of an epidemic of food wastage. In 2019, consumers tossed away nearly a billion tonnes of food, or 17 per cent of all the fare they bought.
That is deeply problematic in a world where 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19. It’s also bad for the planet. Some 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that is ultimately thrown away.
UNEP recently sat down with two of the authors of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report: Clementine O’Connor, food systems expert with UNEP, and Tom Quested, an analyst with the non-profit organization WRAP. They talked about what the world can do to end the scourge of food waste.
UNEP: What are the main findings of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report?
Tom Quested: A staggering 17 per cent of all available food for human consumption is wasted. If you can picture 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks – bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth seven times – then that’s what we’re talking about. The report estimates that, in 2019, 61 per cent of food waste was generated by households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail.
UNEP: Why does food waste matter?
Clementine O’Connor: Even before COVID-19, some 690 million people in the world were undernourished. Three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. Uneaten food is a sheer waste of energy and resources that could be put to better use. Reducing food waste at the retail, food service and household levels can provide multi-faceted benefits for people and the planet. Up to now, the opportunities provided by food waste reductions have remained largely untapped and under-exploited.
UNEP: Is this a rich-world problem, or is it more widespread?
O’Connor: An important finding of the study is that household per capita food waste is broadly similar across country income groups (as defined by the World Bank), suggesting that action on food waste is equally relevant in high and middle-income countries. This breaks significantly with the narrative of the previous decade that household food waste is a rich country problem – and underlines the need for middle-income countries to measure baselines and develop national food waste prevention strategies. Providing technical support to help countries get started, UNEP is now launching Regional Food Waste Working Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, West Asia, and Asia-Pacific.
UNEP: What are the key data gaps?
Quested: Most governments around the world have not collected sufficiently robust data to make the case for action. Even fewer have the data to track trends in food waste over time. However, there have been a growing number of national estimates of food waste in recent years. Areas with higher data coverage include Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, North Africa, Central Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and the Caribbean have no available estimates. Data in the retail and food service sectors is also much more limited than for households. As measurement is an important early step to taking action on this important issue, much more measurement is needed.
UNEP: What’s the difference between food waste and food loss?
O’Connor: Food loss occurs along the food supply chain from harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. Food waste occurs at the retail, food service and consumption levels.
UNEP: How does food waste undermine sustainable development?
Quested: Food waste generates all the environmental impacts of food production (intensive use and pollution of land and water resources, exacerbation of biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions) without any of the benefits of feeding people. Food waste, therefore, undermines sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 12, Target 12.3, aims at halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030.
UNEP: Why should I reduce my food waste? How can I get started?
O’Connor: Reducing food waste at home is one of the easiest ways to reduce your personal climate impact. You eat – and make food decisions – at least three times a day. Some easy ways to get started:
Buy only as much as you need: check your fridge before you buy groceries (or add to your online shopping cart as you notice something is missing) to avoid impulse purchases. If you can, buy fresh food regularly and top-up when needed, rather than trying to get accurate quantities in one bulk shop.
Use what you buy: get portion sizes right by using a cup measure for rice, couscous or pasta. Cook creatively with leftovers: many recipes are flexible enough to absorb any wilting vegetables at the bottom of your fridge. Most leftovers will go into a taco, a sandwich, a curry, a frittata or a pasta sauce, and will be transformed with a sauce or relish. Chefs are increasingly keeping food waste prevention in mind when they share new recipes. Make good use of your freezer: food can be frozen until its expiry date or if it still looks tasty, if it doesn’t have a date. When you get back into a restaurant, you’re on the right side of history when you ask for a smaller portion or a doggy bag, so don’t hesitate to do so.
How will you be tracking progress?
O’Connor: Food waste data in relation to SDG 12.3 will be collected using the United Nations Statistics Division/UNEP Questionnaire on Environment Statistics. The questionnaire is sent out every two years to National Statistical Offices and Ministries of Environment, which will nominate a single food waste focal point in the country to coordinate data collection and reporting. The data will be made publicly available in the SDG Global Database and in UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report, which will be published at regular intervals up to 2030. The next questionnaire will be sent to Member States in September 2022, and results will be reported to the SDG Global Database by February 2023.
A beginner’s guide to sustainable farming
Industrialized farming has been a reliable way to produce lots of food at a relatively low cost. But it’s not the bargain it was once believed to be. Unsustainable agriculture can pollute water, air and soil; is a source of greenhouse gases, and destroys wildlife. All told that costs economies about $3 trillion every year. And to top it all off, some farming practices have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.
18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, which celebrates local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. To mark the occasion, we take a closer look at how to make agriculture more sustainable and what that would mean for the economy, the environment and human health.
What exactly is sustainable agriculture?
It is farming that meets the needs of existing and future generations, while also ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity. It favours techniques that emulate nature–to preserve soil fertility, prevent water pollution and protect biodiversity. It is also a way to support the achievement of global objectives, like the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.
Does sustainable agriculture really make a difference to the environment?
Yes. It uses up to 56 per cent less energy per unit of crops produced, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and supports greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming.
Why does sustainably produced food seem more expensive?
It may be more costly because it is more labour-intensive. It is often certified in a way that requires it to be separated from conventional foods during processing and transport. The costs associated with marketing and distribution of relatively small volumes of product are often comparatively high. And, sometimes, the supply of certain sustainably produced foods is limited.
Why are some foods so much more affordable–even when they require processing and packaging?
The heavy use of chemicals, medicines and genetic modification allows some foods to be produced cheaply and in reliably high volumes, so the retail price tag may be lower. But this is deceiving because it does not reflect the costs of environmental damage or the price of healthcare that is required to treat diet-related diseases. Ultra-processed foods are often high in energy and low in nutrients and may contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. This is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the disease is especially risky for those with pre-existing health problems.
Do we all have to be vegan?
No. But most of us should eat less animal protein. Livestock production is a major cause of climate change and in most parts of the world, people already consume more animal-sourced food than is healthy. But even small dietary shifts can have a positive impact. The average person consumes 100 grams of meat daily. Reducing that by 10 grams could improve human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Is sustainable agriculture possible in developing countries?
Yes. Because sustainably produced food is typically more labour-intensive than conventionally made food, it has the potential to create 30 per cent more jobs. And because it can command higher prices, it can also generate more money for farmers.
Is it possible to make sustainably produced food that is affordable for everyone?
Yes. As demand for certain foods increases, the costs associated with production, processing, distribution and marketing will drop, which should make them less expensive for consumers. Policymakers can also play a role, facilitating market access and leveling the financial and regulatory playing field.
If it is so important, why hasn’t sustainable farming been adopted as a global standard?
There is a lack of understanding of the way that agriculture, the environment and human health intersect. Policymakers do not typically consider nature as a form of capital, so legislation is not designed to prevent pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation. And consumers may not realize how their dietary choices affect the environment or even their own health. In the absence of either legal obligations or consumer demand, there is little incentive for producers to change their approach.
What are some ways to consume food more sustainably?
Diversify your diet and cook more meals at home. Eat more plant-based foods; enjoy pulses, peas, beans and chickpeas as sources of protein. Eat local, seasonal foods. Purchase sustainably produced foods and learn more about farming practices and labeling. Avoid excessive packaging, which is likely to end up as landfill. Don’t waste food: eliminating food waste could reduce global carbon emissions by 8-10 per cent. Cultivate your own garden, even if it is a small one in your kitchen. Support organizations, policies and projects that promote sustainable food systems. And discuss the importance of healthy and sustainable foods with producers, vendors, policymakers, friends and family.
CEOs to G7 and World Leaders: Support “Bold” Net-Zero Commitments
Over 70 CEOs said they stand ready to work with public sector leaders around the world to reduce emissions. Members of the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders signed an Open Letter championing public-private cooperation ahead of the G7 summit in order to supercharge net-zero commitments, polices and actions.
The signatories are looking for governments to accelerate the transition to net-zero before COP26 in order to accelerate even more action from the private sector. The letter emphasizes public-private collaboration as vital and welcomes transformative policy change.
“It is an important and significant move for this many CEOs to put their names forward for deeper collective collaboration,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum. “It sends a clear signal to policy-makers that many global business leaders are ready to make the transition to a net-zero future. As we move towards COP26, public-private collaboration will be key to unlocking investment, setting more ambitious targets to reduce emissions, and turning this ambition into action.”
The Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders is the only CEO-led community open to all companies worldwide that want to make clear commitments and work to transition to net-zero. Members believe the private sector has a responsibility to actively engage in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help lead the global transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. The World Economic Forum hosts the alliance.
The full text of the Open Letter and the list of signatories can be found here on the here on the Forum’s Agenda news site.
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