“The problem at this point is that there is a problem.” 

– Captain Obvious


2012 stands as a turning point. The Zero Hunger Challenge launched by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) Ban Ki-Moon at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 prepared the ground for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – the international organisation that was mandated to pursue food waste avoidance since its inception in 1945 – and a number of partners to establish the “Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction”. Accordingly, as recently as June 16-19, 2015, the Dutch government convened the “No more food to waste” international conference aimed at fostering “global action to stop food losses and food waste”. The conference resulted in a comprehensive wish list detailing what ought to be done.

In many occurrences, citizens perceive international and multilateral organisations to be like elephants. They are big, clumsy, probably powerful, sometimes loud, and are best when kept at a distance. It is not always clear how much good they can do. However, elephants are peculiar animals because, through sensors placed within their feet, they can feel the tremors caused by other animals and elephants from very long distance. This is why they can feel the coming of earthquakes long before other species. This is exactly what the conference did. It took a broad feel at what is happening down on earth. 


At Ground Level

By all accounts, curbing food waste means mitigating dramatic social and environmental issues. While the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 795 million people, i.e. 1/9 of the world population, “do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life”, FAO evaluates that roughly one-third of all food produced in the world ends up as waste. The corresponding carbon footprint is equivalent to a very impressive 7% of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The economic worth of such waste is currently valued at 360 billion euros/year and is expected to reach 540 billion euros per year within the next 15 years. To put it in another way, on a yearly basis, waste food is worth, approximately twice the Greek GDP (185 billion euros/year; globally ranking 43rd and 53rd according to PPPs) and more than the entire Greek debt (320 billion euros). Incidentally, according to Eurostat, in 2014, 44% of Greeks were living below the poverty line.

Given this context and the 2008 economic downturn, which is causing an intense increase in poverty right across Europe, grass roots organisations were first to spur into action. National governments and EU institutions soon followed suit. Indeed, the role of charities and voluntary of organisations, starting back in 1985 with the initiative Restos du Cœur carried through by French comic and presidential candidate Coluche and the creation of the Fédération européenne des banques alimentaires in 1986, had already led to significant results such as the EU funded Most Deprived Persons programme. However, the sheer dimension of the issue suggested putting new actions on the drawing board.


The Waste Makers, Vance Packard, Pelican Book, 1960


Prodding Within EU Member Countries: the Case of Germany

In March 2012, the University of Stuttgart established that German citizens waste 82 kg of food/per person/per year, with private households discarding a total of 6.7 million tons of food per year, equivalent to about 230 euros/person. Meanwhile the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) embarked in the initiative “To good for the bin!” aimed at reducing food waste through a joint effort along the entire value chain. The initiative consists in a public information campaign based on video messages, a dedicated website that offers background information and useful tips for everyday life, and an app “Zu gut für die Tonne” which enables to prepare 400 delicious meals from leftovers with the help of celebrity mentor chefs. Furthermore, BMEL, Slow Food Deutschland e.V. and the Bundesverband Deutsche Tafel organise nationwide action days against food waste under the title “Wir retten Lebensmittel!” (“We save Food!”). On such days, discarded food is collected from producers and supermarkets. Then it is carefully prepared to become a tasty “best leftover menu” consumed by citizens in the shape of a street banquet. 

A survey conducted by the Consumer Research Association GfK on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture in October 2014 measured the results of the campaign. Apart from establishing that one out of two German citizens were aware of the campaign, according to the survey 58% of respondents now pay more attention to what they buy to avoid generating waste, 46% intend using more of their leftover food, and 36% pay greater attention to correct storage practices. 

From an industrial perspective, the German National Research Strategy – Bioeconomy 2030, Our RouteTowards a Biobased Economy, indicates that most issues raised by waste food generation shall be overcome through the advent of the bio-economy. More specifically, food and organic wastes will become feedstock for the new booming bio-industry. Although there is no detailed masterplan to that effect, there are many signs that this is indeed the path to the future. Although, as already happens for primary food production used as a source of energy, it will certainly continue to raise considerable public debate. 


Don’t waste bread!, Clarke & Sherwell Ltd - Ministry of Food, 1914–1919


The French Touch

France took an altogether different tack. According to the French Ministry of the environment, food waste has doubled since 1974 and today French citizens waste 20 kilograms of food per person per year. Out of these 20 kilograms, 7 consist of unpackaged yet-to-be-consumed goods. Altogether, between 100 euros and 160 euros per citizen and per year go to the garbage can and, apart from other impacts, effectively deplete household income by a total of 12 to 20 billion euros. 

In 2010, the French National Waste Council installed a working group on waste prevention to suggest possible actions to curb food waste. The Council came up with a number of recommendations aimed at linking the national waste prevention strategy with the national food program, specifically comprising the:

  • implementation of legislation clarifying the responsibilities of entities wishing to donate food and of entities receiving donated foodstuffs;
  • reinforcement of specialized training for professional cooks;
  • inclusion of food waste as a subject within school and high-school curricular programs;
  • clarification of existing legislation and rules with the Group dealing with catering and nutrition markets;
  • clarification of existing legislation and rules in relation to product consumption limit dates and deadlines for preferred use of product;
  • creation of a club of major players within the food sector;
  • development of a set of guidelines of good practice taking into account all stages of the food chain;
  • establishment of a series of voluntary agreements;
  • continued public communication and awareness raising campaigns.

By 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture established a follow-up National Anti-food-waste agreement, based on 11 different measures which emerged from the commitment of stakeholders of the entire food chain (farmers, wholesale markets, agribusiness, retail, catering and commercial restaurants, local authorities). In August 2014, the Ministry of Ecology joined the effort through the national waste prevention program for the 2014-2010 period. Among other objectives, it aims for a 50% reduction of food wastes by 2025 through the implementation of six specific actions, namely: 

  • reinforcing the battle against waste generation in the catering industry;
  • examining the link between food products and packaging;
  • developing the use of the take-away bag (better known as “doggy bag”);
  • promoting actions against food waste at territorial level;
  • monitoring progress of regulations affecting large biowaste producers vis-à-vis the issue of food waste;
  • establish a club of major players to deal with food waste.

Of the two European examples dealing with food waste reduction, the incremental approach adopted by French authorities provides the most mature and comprehensive method to manage the complex dimensions of food waste. This, of course, without taking into account another trait of French policymaking: the predilection for sudden leap forwards known as Jacobinism.


Lick the platter clean. Don’t waste food, World War II Posters, 1942 - 1945, National Archives at College Park


A disruptive Local Councillor 

Last May, Arash Derambarsh made national and international headlines. Mr. Derambarsh, a 35 year old municipal councillor for the “Divers Droit” (diverse right) in the suburb of Courbevoie, north-west of Paris, first promoted an online petition to stop food wastage. It took him only four months to gather over 200,000 signatures and gain sudden international visibility. By May 21st, the National Assembly unanimously adopted three amendments within the law on energy transition. To begin with, food distributors are now obliged to prevent any wastage of edible food. Hence, supermarkets may no longer contaminate unsold goods approaching best-before dates with bleach to make them inappropriate for human consumption. This common practice, mostly dictated by risk and pest management priorities, had outraged Mr. Derambarsh, an activist food collector in his hometown.

If it is impossible for the supermarket to avoid potential wastage, other amendments make it mandatory to donate excess goods to charities and other registered organisations. If that solution is not feasible, excess food becomes either animal feedstock or compost for agriculture and gardening, or, at a last resort, it is destined to energy recovery. As of July 2016, large supermarkets in France – those that are 400 square meters or larger – will face fines of up to €75,000 or two years in jail if they fail to comply through the definition of specific agreements with registered charitable organisations.

After reaching cross-party consensus in France, Mr. Derambarsh aims for the adoption of similar rules at EU level, and possibly, at global level. His method is similar to that adopted in France with much success. An online petition, distributed through change.org in six different languages (including Belgian!), has already been signed by 550.000 EU citizens. The aim is to reach 1,000,000 signatures. In parallel, on July 9, 2015 an amendment to the Circular Economy package, was adopted by 45 votes against 19 by the EU Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and then approved by the plenary session of Parliament by 394 votes against 197 and 82 abstentions (as we write, the final text is not yet available). 

Sill looking ahead, in an interview to The Guardian, Mr. Derambarsh unveiled his intention to table the issue – via the campaign group ONE, founded by U2 singer Bono – when the United Nations discusses its Millennium Development Goals to end poverty in September 2015. Later he will take the issue before the G20 economic summit in Turkey in November and the COP21 environment conference in Paris in December.


Keeping to the Fast Track

All in all, it looks like the elephant, mentioned earlier on, has been prodded into action. Although it is considerably slow to kick-start, once it starts moving, it is faster than most humans and much less likely to come to an abrupt halt. 

A leap in cracking down food waste, such as that promoted by the French municipal councillor, does however raise a number of issues. Food distributors and charitable organisations alike have been quick in bringing these forward. The most serious ones concern the ability to maintain the quality of donated goods. For instance: how should supermarkets stock food for donation and at what cost? In addition, and more importantly, how can charitable organisations safely stock and distribute donated goods? Introducing the necessary logistic infrastructure, i.e. transportation and refrigeration rooms, generates very considerable costs. How shall these costs be covered? 

Extended (or Shared) Producer Responsibility (EPR) already appears as a very promising way forward. Renewable Matter magazine will continue to report the ongoing debate on the possible application of EPR to achieve the food wastage clamp down as much as on the promising innovations that are in the works of the bio-economy.