Food waste is a serious problem and we’re paying a dear price for it, but the European Union has many ideas on how to stop it.
29 tonnes of carrots dumped on the ground in front of London’s Goldsmiths University. The provocative installation Grounding, the brainchild of Spanish artist Rafael Pérez Evans, was created in autumn 2020. The performance, however, didn’t go to waste as the vegetables were re-used as animal feed. However, the same can’t be said for the food we buy without needing it (perhaps falling prey to a 3-for-2 deal), or the fruit that goes mouldy before we get round to eating it, or the tubs and cartons we empty out into the bin once they have expired. A total of 88 million tonnes of food is wasted across the supply chain – from farms and factories to our kitchens and pantries – in the European Union, the equivalent of every citizen throwing away 173 kilos of food every year, or almost half a kilo a day. A paradox that European institutions want to tackle as soon as possible.
Who pays the price of food waste?
When our parents used to tell us not to leave food on the plate because other children are dying of hunger, they weren’t all that wrong. At least a third of all food produced in the world is wasted, a troubling statistic especially when confronted with the fact that 2 billion extra people will live on the planet by 2050, which will require a 70 per cent increase in food production. Despite the solemn international promise of erasing hunger by 2030, it remains a serious problem that affects 690 million people globally; a number that has increased over the past year marked by the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve all seen images of malnourished children in developing countries, but even in the wealthy European Union 6.7 per cent of the population wasn’t able to afford a good meal every second day in 2019 (according to Eurostat EU28 data which includes the UK).
Another emergency is also exacerbated by food waste: the climate crisis. In the EU alone, 170 million tonnes of CO2 are emitted every year simply to produce and dispose of the 88 million tonnes of wasted food mentioned earlier. And then there’s all the money spent on producing, processing and transporting it, which amounted to some 143 billion euros in 2012 according to official estimates.
The EU’s action on food waste
European institutions have stated their position loud and clear. The EU Parliament wants food waste to be halved by 2030 and the Commission has promised to introduce legally binding goals by 2023. This journey involves both the circular economy strategy and From Farm to Fork initiative for a sustainable food system. These are both core pillars of the European Green Deal, the green transition plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Before taking action, the Commission is performing a series of studies and elaborating precise methodologies to quantify the problem which also take into account state-by-state differences. The latest official data, for example, tells us that the Netherlands have the highest level of food waste, with an average of 541 kilos thrown away by each person every year. Italy, conversely, performs quite well, placing itself around the middle of the table. In fact, according to the Waste Watcher observatory based on surveys of Italian families, the pandemic has made the country’s citizens even more attentive to this problem.
Are you sure it has expired?
Taking a closer look at the data, it emerges that 19 per cent of food waste happens during processing and a much higher proportion – 53 per cent – within our homes. “It’s clear that consumers have an approach to food waste closely linked to common sense as well as their own attitudes and sensibilities. It’s unlikely that European regulations will ‘force’ them to enact certain changes,” comments Daniela Rondinelli, an MEP who sits on the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI). “Rather, we’ll be working with the Commission to offer consumers the right tools to help them shop sustainably, with clear information about what they’re buying and how it should be consumed”.
For example, when we throw out a pack of pasta that was at the back of the pantry we may think it’s past its expiry date, whereas in truth it can still be eaten. There’s an important difference between an “expiry date” and a “best before date”. The former signals when perishable foods like milk or meat are no longer safe to eat, and should be carefully noted. Best before dates, on the other hand, simply indicate when a product’s organoleptic and nutritional properties might begin to change, meaning foods consumed past this date will still be edible if stored correctly. For example, crackers in undamaged packaging, stored in a cool, dry place might be a little less crispy, but they’re still perfectly safe. “The Commission is evaluating ways of simplifying labels to make them more easily understandable,” Nicola Procaccini, an MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists group, tells LifeGate.
Cheap, tasty food is just a few taps away
Another significant portion of food waste in Europe happens within the catering and hospitality industry (12 per cent) and through retail and wholesale (5 per cent). Here, in parallel with institutional efforts, some promising projects are emerging to fight food waste using ingenuity and a touch of creativity.
Put yourself in the shoes of a local neighbourhood baker who finds themselves with unsold loaves at the end of the day. Until recently, their only viable option was to throw them in the trash. Today, by subscribing to apps like Too Good To Go, they can use unsold products to fill “magic boxes”, and then sell them at a reduced price that covers raw materials and labour costs. Users can look through the app, check if local shops are selling anything they might want, and go and pick up a magic box. Dinner is served.
Founded in Denmark in 2015, Too Good To Go operates in 14 European countries. In October 2020, after a year and a half, the startup passed the million-magic-boxes landmark in Italy, while France surpassed 20 million over four years. “In these countries, Too Good To Go was very successful from the start,” says Ilaria Ricotti, the company’s PR manager in Italy, who also anticipated upcoming projects in the next few months. “In September 2020, we launched operations in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, in the US. In 2021, we want to keep expanding to reach more cities in Europe and the US”.
“The app is unquestionably useful, as its rapid growth shows. However, it’s still a small step in addressing a huge problem,” Ricotti notes. With this fact in mind, the startup has set up a Movement department which aims to tackle food waste by fostering community involvement and connecting with companies, schools and institutions.
A collective problem with many viable solutions
While work continues on the educational front, many proposals within European institutions encompass various approaches. “The European Commission is exploring the most suitable solutions to enhance the value of food products that are no longer destined for human consumption for commercial reasons, processing issues or other defects. These products can be transformed into fertilisers and animal feed, safely and at a low cost”, Procaccini explains. “A possible solution could be to create platforms to connect livestock farmers and those producing food crops within a given region”.
Recovering unused food can also become a tool to fight poverty, says Rondinelli. “We could change Europe’s VAT directive to allow tax exemptions on food donations and create better variable pricing legislation for food close to its expiry date. Alternately, we could dip into the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development or the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived to facilitate food donations, covering collection, transport, storage and distribution costs”.
All in all, food waste is a troubling trend that needs to be reversed as soon as possible. The ideas are out there. It’s now institutions’ turn to put them into practice and our own responsibility to be more conscientious of the impact we have.