In January 2012, the European Parliament issued a resolution calling for ambitious European action on food waste. It suggested that 2014 be proclaimed “European Year Against Food Waste” and asked the Commission to take measures to halve such waste within the EU by 2025.
The ball is now in the Commission’s court
in that it must decide whether or not to follow the Parliament’s recommendations, declared Salvatore Caronna, the resolution’s rapporteur, but a strong signal has already been sent to the environmental activists who have been tackling this issue for a while now. If political decisions follow this expression of political will, the road to a much-needed ambitious strategy will be open. This will hopefully inspire other governments, for the issue of food waste is one which affects the developed world as much as the developing world – and in which the food industry must take action too.
The absurdity of food waste
Let’s start with a few figures. The European Commission has recently calculated that 89 million tons of food are wasted in the 27 member states each year, which corresponds to 179 kilos per person. In the meantime, 16 million EU citizens depend on food aid, and 79 million live beneath the poverty line. These figures highlight, in a region that is supposed to be wealthy, the staggering inequalities among the population, and the inconsistent use that is made of vital resources. Of course, the problem does not stop at the doors of Europe. In the United States, it is estimated that almost half of all foodstuffs are wasted every year. And in developing countries, the problem worsens, as it is not always possible to ensure proper conservation of food along the whole length of the supply chain. All in all, on a global level, about one third of food production (1.3 billion tons) is wasted every year. Such findings are cruel when we consider that a billion people suffer from malnutrition in the world. What will the situation be in 2050, when there are 9 billion people on earth? However, there is more to this issue than “just” food waste. As a massive user of water and energy, and the largest generator of greenhouse gases, food production is the human activity which has the most significant negative impact on the environment. If you consider that it takes 25,000 litres of water to produce 100 grams of beef, the thought of a steak being thrown away is blatantly absurd, to say the least. And there are, of course, economic consequences too – for the companies that waste too much at the production stage, and for consumers who are effectively throwing their money away, spending it on food they are not going to eat.
Who is responsible for food waste? Everyone. The European Commission estimates that households account for 42% of waste, manufacturers for 39%, retailers for 5% and the catering sector for 14%. In developed countries, it is in fact consumers who have the greatest impact. In developing countries, where food production and conservation technology is not as good, manufacturers are responsible for the greater part of waste. But in both cases, food is squandered at all stages. Looking on the positive side, this means at least that each and every actor in the supply chain is in a position to do something to reduce waste.
One problem, many solutions
At production level first, support should be provided to local, sustainable food production systems. Bigger ones should be encouraged to work with responsible suppliers and to limit waste in the transformation phase. The development of micro-factories or on-site transformation units, as mentioned in previous articles, would also be advantageous. In developing countries, a report by the FAO points that improving roads is key, so that the food can get to the market faster. At retailer level, a number of options can be envisaged. Firstly, developing different pack sizes which would be more efficient in terms of conservation so that people are not forced to buy more than they need. Concerning expiry dates, the European Parliament advises that
dual-date labelling could be introduced to show until when food may be sold (sell-by date) and until when it may be consumed (use-by date),
so that the consumers know exactly how fresh their food is. Fraunhofer, a German research organization, is actually developing cutting-edge packaging which can keep goods fresh for longer or change colour depending on freshness. And finally, if despite all these efforts food is on the verge of being thrown away, cooperation with food banks should avoid the need for retailers to actually dump food. In fact, according to the FEBA (European Federation of Food Banks, an association bringing together 247 such facilities),
more than half of the food collected in Europe comes from the European programme of food aid for the most deprived. 18% comes from the food industry, 14% comes from the retail industry and 9% from individuals through national and local collections.
The burden on public aid could be lightened if all actors were to see food banks as an alternative to dustbins for goods that are still edible. On the same theme but on a catering level, the European Parliament has expressed a wish that “where possible, contracts are awarded to catering companies that use local produce and give away or redistribute leftover food to poorer people or food banks free of charge, rather than just disposing of it.” Hospitals, schools or restaurants must also change their ways and work with more responsible providers, as a French documentary, “Le Scandale du gaspillage alimentaire” (The Scandal of Food Waste) recently pointed out. Finally, when it comes to households, awareness campaigns are essential to teach people how to consume more responsibly. The European Parliament even advises each member state to introduce
school and college courses explaining how to store, cook and dispose of food and also exchange best practices to this end.
But in spite of all these efforts, there will always be waste, because there will always be things to throw away: packaging, peel from oranges or other fruits, shells, coffee grounds, etc. Composting is a solution, but there are other ways to ensure that this refuse is not completely wasted. For instance, by turning it into energy we can use. A number of companies are already doing that and as one of them, Positive Energy Sussex, explains, installing small biogas facilities like theirs at town level would help make the most of the waste locally, while limiting transportation costs and environmental impact.
The power of political will
Public and food industry awareness of this issue is increasing. However, the fight against food waste needs a major kick to really scale up and produce tangible and rapid results. And even more than a kick, it needs political will to support it. Many of the options mentioned above require a change in the legal framework, encouragement from governments in the shape of subsidies or tax advantages, coercive resolutions from the EU, public funds to finance awareness campaigns, etc. There will always be avant-garde companies and governments who will tackle the issue without actually being required to, but the next step is to have everyone join the effort. This is exactly where political will is needed, because there are a number of things which cannot happen fast enough and efficiently enough without that kind of leadership. Making 2014 “European Year Against Food Waste” thus seems like the right thing to do. To be continued…
(Photo from http://www.modernhippiemag.com/)