A Champion for Reducing Food Loss & Waste: Q&A with Dr. Shenggen Fan
September 25, 2023
Shenggen Fan, Ph.D., is a global leader in agricultural economics and food policies and author of widely cited journal articles, books, and research on public investment, rural development, food systems, food loss and waste, food security, and nutrition. Fan is currently chair professor at the College of Economics and Management at China Agricultural University (CAU).
Prior to joining CAU, he served as Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), where he worked for more than 25 years. In 2014, Fan received the Hunger Hero Award from the World Food Program, in recognition of his commitment to and leadership in alleviating hunger worldwide. He received the 2017 Fudan Management Excellence Award, which is referred to in China as the “Nobel Prize for Management.”
Fan joined The Global FoodBanking Network’s Board of Directors in 2020. We sat down with him to discuss agricultural research, Champions 12.3 and their work on food loss and waste reduction, and the role food banks can play in the food system.
What led you to focus your career on food systems policy and research?
I was born and raised in a small village in China in the 60s and 70s. During this time, my family experienced hunger, and we were undernourished. I suffered a variety of challenges, [and] I decided that I was going to do something about it. I attended university, where I studied agriculture and economics.
After finishing my bachelor and master’s degree in China, I moved to the United States to obtain my Ph.D. in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. My first real job was in the Netherlands working on policy and institutions related to agricultural research systems in developing countries. I then worked at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville as a rice policy analyst So pretty much my entire life, my research, and my education have been dedicated to food, agriculture, economics, and rural development.
After many years of schooling and work, I joined the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and in 25 years, I would work my way from the bottom to the top, starting as a research fellow and retiring after many years as the organization’s director general.
While at IFPRI, I first focused on the return to investment in agricultural research, education, rural infrastructure, and irrigation. As I continued to grow at the organization, around 2005, I set up programs in developing countries to strengthen their capacity to do their own research on food policy, and this was when we really started using the food systems approach as a global community.
What exactly is a food systems approach, and how did it focus your work on food loss and waste?
In 2009, when I was the director general of IFPRI, we took that concept that had been growing around food systems and turned it into a practical tool to guide our research and partners.
The food system is the whole value chain of food, from growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, food storage, transportation, processing, distribution, disposal, all the way to household consumption and also includes environmental and health externalities from the whole chain. It was when we started really analyzing this issue that researchers began to recognize that food loss and waste was a significant issue along the value chain and of the whole food systems.
At IFPRI, we started doing country-specific research to analyze food loss and waste using the value chain and connecting the data to measure and decide where the optimal interventions and changes could happen to eliminate food loss and waste.
From your perspective, can food banks play a role in that change?
Food banks indeed are a part of the solution when it comes to food loss and waste and in achieving many of our other Sustainable Development Goals.
From the consumption and nutrition side, many people facing hunger are now able to access healthy, nutritious food through a food bank. Food banks aren’t serving just bags of wheat flour or bread or rice or sugary products, many times they are preparing a well-rounded package of foods, which diversifies and improves nutrition.
On the other hand, food banks are also playing an important role in supporting food loss and waste mitigation across the private sector and even with private citizens. This is where food banks are really showing their importance in food loss and waste reduction.
I see food banks as a huge part of the solution within the food system to reduce food loss and waste. Food banks support nutrition, health, inclusion, and are doing amazing work in reducing harmful environmental impacts caused by the agricultural sector.
Shenggen Fan, Ph.D.
You are a part of Champions 12.3. Tell us more about your role as a Champion and what needs to be done in the future to achieve Target 12.3?
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 seeks to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.” The third target under this goal calls for cutting in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level and reducing food losses along production and supply chains by 2030. Champions 12.3 is a coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organizations, research institutions, farmer groups, and civil society dedicated to mobilizing action and accelerating progress toward Target 12.3 by 2030.
I was honored when I was asked to become a Champion of 12.3 in 2016 and have been serving in that capacity, working with many other leaders to explore the daunting task of cutting food loss and waste in half by 2030. This week the Champions and all of our friends and partners are meeting in New York to strategize and measure the progress we have made in the last year and look forward to action items for the following year.
To achieve Target 12.3, we all need to work together and all of the other systems for example, environment, culture, technology, economy, and policy, need to embrace food systems, and that includes food banking.