A study by the waste watchdog, WRAP, recently found that supermarkets and food manufacturers in the United Kingdom incinerate enough food every year to fill Wembley Stadium nine times over. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the food wasted in Europe is enough to feed 200 million people. On a worldwide scale, the amount of waste is approximately one-third of all food produced which creates 1.3 billion tonnes of waste and costs approximately $200 billion per year in industrialised regions.
Loss and wastage occurs at all stages of the food supply chain. In low-income countries, most loss occurs during production, while in developed countries approximately 100 kilograms per person is wasted at the consumption stage every year. Retailers are also guilty.
Retail stores, particularly supermarkets, throw away large quantities of food that has reached its use-by date despite being edible at the time of disposal. Some supermarkets actively destroy these edible foods to discourage the poor and homeless from having access to it.
While they claim this is done to prevent foragers from getting food poisoning, another theory is that by allowing the poor and the homeless to take discarded food, this will harvest a culture of people deliberately avoiding paying the full price for food in order to get it free once it has reached its use-by date and been discarded.
There have been several high-profile cases of people prosecuted for ‘stealing’ food. In 2014, three men stood trial in Britain after taking £33 worth of food from dustbins behind the supermarket store, Iceland. According to The Guardian, the Crown Prosecution Service claimed that there was a “significant public interest” in prosecuting the defendants.
Contractual arrangements with suppliers can also produce food waste. Farmers and food processors often create a surplus of produce because they have to meet a deliverable quota to avoid having their contracts cancelled. The surplus mitigates against any unforeseen loss during production but is not purchased by the buyer and is, instead, simply disposed.
This food waste that exists around things as nonsensical as quotas and cosmetics also extends to the fishing industry.
The Common Fisheries Policy
According to the book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal: The True Cost of What the Global Food Industry Throws Away, approximately 50 percent of all the fish caught in Europe is discarded because it is the wrong size or species.
The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the fisheries policy of the European Union (EU). It sets out quotas for member states telling them how much, and what type of fish, they are allowed to catch.
Critics have argued that it has had disastrous consequences on the environment and it is regularly cited as one of the main reasons why countries with big fish resources such as Norway and Iceland have decided to reject European Union membership.
The CFP quotas have led to controversial ‘dead fish dumping’ where, for years, fisherman have thrown millions of dead fish back into the sea because they have exceeded their permissible quota. Efforts to resolve this issue have been ongoing for a number of years without success.
Even though the EU has pledged to completely outlaw the scandal of dumping marketable fish back into the sea by 2019, similar initiatives in the past have witnessed them brought onto land only to wind up in a landfill instead.
Such astronomical waste is nonsensical, ethically, economically and environmentally. It costs hundreds of billions worldwide. It wastes the land, water, fertilisers and labour needed to produce it and it means that the pollution from transporting the food and the greenhouse gas emissions it produces when it finds its way into a landfill is unnecessary and avoidable.
The population of planet earth is expected to climb to 9 billion people by 2050, to avoid wide scale starvation, governments around the world have a responsibility to act. Thankfully, with more and more awareness being raised towards the scale of food waste, some European nations are beginning to respond.
In 2016, the Italian government overwhelmingly backed laws aimed at cutting down food waste. The bill was supported by 181 Senators with just two in opposition and will encourage families to use “doggy bags” to take home unfinished food after eating out. The initiative also removes obstacles on farmers and supermarkets seeking to donate food to charity.
The levels of food waste are particularly unacceptable given the country’s public debt of 135 percent of GDP, dire youth unemployment of approximately 40 percent and the millions of people living in poverty as a result. Ministers have said that food waste is costing Italy’s business and households more than €12 billion a year, which is approximately 1 per cent of GDP.
The bill was announced just three months after the highest court in Italy ruled that stealing small amounts of food due to hunger was not a criminal offense.
Sanctions for giving away food past its sell-by date have been abolished and business owners who donate more money through a much more simplified system will pay less waste tax.
The agricultural ministry will also provide a grant to launch a public campaign about food waste and to find innovative ways to store foods in transit to prevent them perishing and lengthening their shelf life.
The bill followed laws passed in France months earlier that made it illegal for supermarkets to dispose of food.
In 2016, France’s National Assembly unanimously voted in favour of new laws making the country the first in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing food away. Instead, shops larger than 400-square-metres will be required by law to sign a contract with either a charity or a food bank must sign a contract with a charity to donate edible products. As a result, millions more free meals each year will be distributed to people struggling to afford to eat while other produce can be turned into animal feed, compost or energy. Shop owners who fail to comply could face fines of up to €3,750.
Supermarkets will also be barred from deliberately spoiling food, such as dousing it in bleach, in order to stop it from being eaten by people foraging in bins. A practice described as “scandalous” by Guillaume Garot, the Junior Minister for the Food Industry who sponsored the bill. Furthermore, the new laws will make it simpler for the food industry to give some excess products to food banks direct from its factories.
According to Jacques Bailet, head of Banques Alimentaires, a network of French food banks, even a 15% increase in food coming from supermarkets would mean 10 million more meals being handed out each year.
The initiative is part of a wider move to cut down on food waste with the French government aspiring to halve its current levels of waste by 2025. It follows a media campaign by the politician, Arash Derambarsh, who now envisions his project going global.
Ending food waste around the world
Derambarsh says that he was outraged by the sight of homeless people scrambling around in supermarket bins during the winter and vowed to do something to change it: “When I was a boy I decided that when I grew up I would do something to make society better”, he says.
Derambarsh started his campaign by collecting and distributing unwanted food from his local supermarket before setting up a petition online with Change.org. Within months it had attracted more than 211,000 signatures, the most of any other online petition about ecology or agriculture in France.
Following the success, Derambarsh hopes to extend the concept to the EU and one day, across the world. His new online petition aims to secure 1 million signatures, sufficient enough to force through a European Citizens’ Initiative which would present an official appeal to the European Commission to discuss introducing the legislation across the EU’s member states. At the time of writing the petition had received signatures from 779,501people and you can add your support here.
Derambarsh has said that it is “absurd” that food is wasted and in some cases deliberately spoiled while the homeless, poor and unemployed go hungry. “The next step is to ask the president, François Hollande, to put pressure on Jean-Claude Juncker and to extend this law to the whole of the EU”, he said. “This battle is only just beginning. We now have to fight food waste in restaurants, bakeries, school canteens and company canteens. Our ultimate goal is to see the law enforced across the world, starting with Europe.
We fought tooth and nail for this law, and it will now allow more than 10 million people eat more easily. But as we all know, food poverty isn’t just a French problem – it’s a global affliction, and has no reason to exist. There are more than 80 million people suffering in Europe, and they could all be helped by this law being passed in their countries”.
WRAP works with governments, businesses, and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency. Between 2010 and 2015, WRAP initiatives reduced greenhouse gas emissions in England by nearly 50 million tonnes, equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Portugal.
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