Food Waste and Europe: Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?
By Gerelyn Terzo, WIA Media (March 17, 2020)
It’s hard to comprehend that there is a food-waste crisis anywhere in the world considering that impoverished nations such as Zimbabwe are knocking on the door of famine. The truth is, however, that food waste is a major issue that has gripped the farming community. If you want to know whose fault it is, it depends on who you ask. The European Commission says “food waste occurs at all levels of the food supply chain - from farm to fork.” One thing is clear: food waste is an expensive problem - both economically and environmentally - one that can’t afford to be ignored.
So, what is food waste exactly? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste is defined as “the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.” Meanwhile, food loss is “the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers.”
These two phenomenons combined – food waste and food loss – comprise one-third of food production globally. In other words, about 33 percent of the world’s food is either wasted or lost each year. If food waste were a country, it would be in the top three nations responsible for producing carbon dioxide, surpassed only by the United States and China.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global food waste and loss combined were responsible for as much as 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010-2016, costing $1 trillion annually. In the EU, “the amount of food waste per EU citizen from agricultural production to final household consumption” was reportedly about 173 kilograms annually, which translates to 170 million tons of carbon emissions. Regardless of the angle from which you approach it, food waste is a massive problem.
The EU is looking to “halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030 and reduce food losses along the food production and supply chains” to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
France a Pioneer
France has been a pioneer in tackling the grocery store problem, having banned grocery stores from discarding unsold food that could otherwise be donated to shelters, etc. The measure was introduced four years ago, but it’s still being perfected.
While France is reportedly the first country to take such aggressive measures, and there have been some positive results, enforcement of the law is seemingly lacking. The rule attaches a $4,000 penalty to grocery stores that fail to comply with it, yet the first offender had yet to be fined as of August 2019, PBS reported.
Food Waste in the UK
UK farmers are similarly grappling with the issue of food waste. Minette Batters, National Farmers Union (NFU) president, represents 46,000 farming and growing businesses across England and Wales. She also farms a bit of sheep and arable crops on her land in Wiltshire in South West England, where the barn doubles as a wedding venue on the weekends. While Brexit takes much of her attention these days at the NFU as farmers hunt for clarity on major issues such as trade with the EU, food waste is also on the radar. Batters described the scope of the problem:
“We’ve been wasting an extraordinary amount of food in the UK. The value at one stage was GBP 18 billion. It’s clear that the figure is coming down. People are wasting less food. But the bulk of that value is in consumer shopping baskets, effectively. It’s not so much from the farmgate supply chain but people buying foods that they end up wasting.”
Growers are doing their part, taking initiative, sometimes composting, or re-cultivating back into the ground. The nature of the UK grocery retailer market, however, is one that is highly consolidated, with only a handful of major players with large amounts of market share. The problem is two-pronged, including a propensity among grocery stores to offer two-for-one promotions while only accepting produce that is perfect in appearance.
Worse, retailers can change contracts on a whim, leaving farmers scrambling to find another home for the product. As a result, fairness in the supply chain is of utmost importance to the farming community.
“Primarily why we struggle at the farmgate is such a desire for perfection in retail. Anything that’s not deemed perfect can be tossed aside,” Batters explained.
At the moment, a major agriculture bill that is expected to dramatically impact the lives of farmers is in the hands of Parliament. Part of the bill tackles fairness in the supply chain. Batters is hopeful, calling it a “fundamentally enabling piece of legislation” and telling Women in Agribusiness:
“In the ag bill, fairness in the supply chain and first purchaser relationship will be a really big help. It will be really important that the ag bill brings in those trading principles and legislates them. I’m much more encouraged to see it addressing food security within the text; it’s more a bill about food production than not.”
Carina Millstone is the executive director of London-based Feedback, an organization dedicated to regenerating nature by transforming the food system. Millstone explained that food waste, which is a key issue for the campaign group, is not only a social and moral outrage but also what she described as an environmental tragedy.
“We now know that food waste is a climate issue,” said Millstone. “This means forward thinking is being included in climate change efforts. Historically climate change centers around energy, housing and transportation. But we’ve seen the UK Committee on Climate Change, an advisory body for the UK government on how to meet targets, introduce forward intervention on climate change in net-zero [greenhouse-gas emissions] scenarios.”
In fact, the UN Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 set targets around food waste prevention, recognizing it as an important environmental and developmental issue on the global stage.
Food waste, for instance, produces greenhouse emissions in transport and retail, while fertilizer use can have devastating consequences on the environment, Millstone explained. Meanwhile, growing food that’s ultimately not consumed and disposing of it either in a landfill or by incineration creates greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the nutrients that are being lost. The blame, Millstone suggests, falls squarely on the UK’s highly-concentrated grocery market sector.
“The vast majority of us purchase food from supermarkets that have a vested interest in us buying as much food as we can,” said Millstone. “I would say in the UK, we waste one in five bags that we bring back from supermarkets. If there’s less food waste in the household, you’d expect to see a smaller grocery market. That’s a difficult way to talk about the issue to supermarkets.”
As food waste from farmers, Millstone said it’s hard to say because there’s no baseline.
“There is a reluctance to come up with a reliable estimate because it would create more work for farmers, many of whom are small businesses. But based on our research anecdotally, we worked with dozens of farmers across the UK, there’s a lot of waste on farms, some due to natural variation but a lot of it due to the structure of the market. To a certain extent there are so few buyers in the UK and elsewhere, so the thinking is bad business is better than no business,” said Millstone.
She went on to explain:
“Farmers need to meet contractual obligations with groceries, they can’t afford not to. They can’t afford to lose business with big players in the UK market. But there are structural issues in the supply chain. The trend toward loose fruits and vegetables is a step in the right direction. I’m reasonably hopeful we will begin seeing more of it.”
Millstone describes part of the solution, which shockingly does not involve producing more food:
“We know now that the pathway to stabilizing the climate requires food waste prevention. We need to produce less food but make sure it’s actually eaten to ensure security, and we need to start removing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” said Millstone, pointing to afforestation.
The tide is beginning to turn in the right direction. For instance, supermarkets have made commitments to reduce food waste, including removing unnecessary food labels. Millstone noted that one-third of food discarded prematurely is a result of confusion stemming from food labels. In 2018 big food businesses signed a pledge to start measuring food waste and reporting on it. It’s a product of an action plan designed by UK charity WRAP, which works closely with the UK government.
“The level of disclosure was a lot smaller than expected. That was a disappointment, but at least it was on their radar,” said Millstone.
Those businesses that did provide transparency proved to the policymakers that it could be done.
“That led to the government potentially introducing compulsory methods to measure food waste. It was productive having started off with voluntary reporting to see what’s possible, and the UK government is expected to put out a consultation introducing mandatory reporting for companies over a certain size in terms of measuring how much food they produce,” said Millstone, who is also encouraged by the fact that the UK will host the UN annual meeting about the Paris Climate Agreement in November.
Feedback currently has a petition calling for mandatory food waste reporting.
Value Food, Waste Less
While there is no silver bullet to solve the food waste problem, everybody has a part to play. According to Batters, it’s important to get everybody – including the consumer – involved with valuing food and wasting less. At the Batters farm, they have a policy that caterers and suppliers must remove all food waste from the premises.
“On the farm, the last thing we want is leftover meat that can get contaminated. They take any food waste away with them, we insist. Weddings are about consumption. We definitely see quite a lot of food on some occasions that can get wasted. That’s why it’s important to get everybody involved with valuing food and wasting less.”
Meanwhile, policymakers now have food waste on their radars. Whether or not their policies will prove successful or not, however, remains to be seen.