Earlier this year, France made a landmark judgment passing legislation that ensured that supermarkets must donate their unused food to charities. The legislation comes as a response to the global food waste crisis and ongoing efforts from citizen groups to tackle it. Here, Amira Aleem questions whether this policy change represents a wider move towards positive action against vast food waste in Europe.
Apart from the obvious moral argument, that food waste is excessive when hundreds of people go hungry all over the world – it is important to remember that food waste also affects our economy and our planet in huge ways. John Oliver provides an excellent overview of the issues in the United States.
In comparison, the UK wastes an estimated 7 Million tones of avoidable food every year, costing the economy close to £12.5 billion annually. Since throwing away food involves a waste of all the resources that went into growing, producing, packaging and transporting the food, the long-term environmental effects are disastrous. Some studies claim that unconsumed food causes greenhouse gas emissions of over 3.3 billion tones annually and is responsible for water wastage equal to the volume of Russia’s river Volga.
Deliberate wasting is a particularly insensitive social problem at a time when religious leaders are lobbying the government to pay attention and provide support to families living under the breadline. The demand for food banks and emergency services has gone up a record 54% in the last year alone, with many parents frequently going hungry to feed their children.
France’s decision is heartening at a time when the European Union has outlined its intention to implement policies to enable Member States reduce food waste by It aligns closely with the EU agenda to combat food waste by promoting a circular economy. The bill navigates the complexities of making out of date food available to consumers by ensuring food that is unfit for human consumption is used as agricultural compost or as animal feed, thereby also having a knock-on effect of driving down the prices of food.
Although the law is definitely a step in the right direction, and hopefully will set an example for other countries in the EU to consider the effects of large-scale food wastage it is worth remembering that supermarkets and restaurants are not the prime accused in the fight against food waste. The largest amount of avoidable food waste in fact, comes from consumers themselves. For example, in France, an overwhelming 67% of food is wasted by consumers.
The problem then, becomes a larger discussion on behavior and the consumer culture of choice and excess. Fundamental attitudes to food waste are what need to be addressed. In the UK, and supermarkets around the world fresh fruits and vegetables have to conform to strict cosmetic standards before they are harvested.
This means that large amounts of perfectly edible food are discarded because they do not look visually appetising although they have the same amount of nutritional value as their ‘good-looking’ counterparts. UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s was lauded when it decided to relax cosmetic standards in 2012 as a response to the worst harvest in decades.
In another example, although British supermarkets are still under no legal compulsion to donate food, Tesco has trialed a ‘Buy One Get One Free Later’ offer that allows customers to take advance of competitive offers but return to claim them the following week, to facilitate less waste at home. Although small steps, creative strategies like these can be incredibly effective at holding larger corporations responsible and helping consumers to be aware of the consequences of their buying habits.
For the rest of us, learning how to store groceries is a great first step in keeping food fresh and edible and these tricks will help make the same food last longer. There are also several food waste reduction apps that handle the process of planning meals and managing leftovers. Ultimately, it can be argued that the growing awareness of the issues surrounding food waste will allow policymakers to underpin food waste as a critical issue of our time. It will also leverage the power of conscious consumerism to push market forces towards demanding a service – less food waste.
Interestingly enough, the claim for many UK supermarkets not donating their surplus food is that it becomes a legal liability for food poisoning cases and that it is an issue of health and safety. The Good Samaritan law in the United States actually protects food donors who donate food in an act of goodwill, allowing them legal protection. It may be worth asking if a similar law would provide traction for the food waste reduction movement in the UK and may in fact be more relevant to the nature of food waste in the UK.
Ultimately, as the Atlantic puts it, we need to establish whether throwing away food should be made illegal in order to best tackle it. And ultimately, as is characteristic with these things it may be far more likely that a combination of efforts and initiatives working together will redefine the landscape of the issue to create lasting change.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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