Food waste: Time for a paradigm shift from ‘selling more’ to ‘selling better’

Fruits and vegetables that do not meet aesthetic standards are often discarded. [Teresa Wright/Flickr]

Consumers have a crucial role to play in reducing food waste, but change will have to take place at every stage of the supply chain, including a revolution in supermarket marketing practices, Olivier Jan told EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune.

Olivier Jan is an associate at Deloitte Sustainability Services.

He answered questions from Giuletta Gamberini on how to better understand and tackle food waste.

With €143 billion worth of food thrown away every year, food waste is a burning issue. A study published by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) last Thursday (26 May) revealed that while consumers are responsible for one third of all food waste in France, a significant amount of food is lost at each stage of the supply chain.

A similar observation was made by the EU’s Fusions project  (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies), which presented its conclusions in Brussels on 24 May.

Of the 88 million tonnes of food waste produced in the EU in 2012 (equal to 173 kg per person or 20% of all food produced in Europe), some 53% was generated by households. The other 47%, in descending order, was wasted by processors, producers, the restaurant business and distributors.

In total, this waste cost the EU €143 billion in 2012, including €28 billion worth of perfectly edible food.

French food waste could feed ten million people

France wastes enough food every year to feed ten million people, or cut national greenhouse gas emissions by 3%, according to a study published on Thursday (26 May) by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME).  EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

Consumers are often singled out as the biggest culprits in food waste.  What exactly did your research find?

European consumers do play a major role in food waste, but they also have great potential to reduce it.

On the one hand, the consumer’s demand for quality leads to food waste further up the chain: this is particularly flagrant with fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, they are directly responsible for wasting the difference between what they buy and what they consume.

So while they produce half of all food waste, they are behind two thirds of the wasted value (€98 billion), because they throw away more edible food than the actors at the other stages of the supply chain.

Some of the food that ends up in the bin is not even leftovers from meals but untouched food. What is more, the value of food grows as it goes along the distribution chain.

Fighting poverty, making efficient use of resources, a whole series of economic and environmental benefits… There are many reasons to tackle the issue of food waste. In your opinion, what are the fundamental issues that are calling out for action?

For me there are two main issues. Firstly, there is the consumer’s economic logic. At a time when economic growth is slowing, when the share of household income spent on food is falling, people cannot afford to ignore any way of saving money.

The extra purchasing power that could be achieved by reducing food waste is anything but negligible: according to the British NGO Wrap (Waste and Resources Action Programme), each household in the United Kingdom throws away €500 worth of food every year.

And then we should also make the fight against food waste a pillar of our broader thought on how best to use our planet’s resources. We calculate that, to feed the planet, agricultural production will have to grow by 65% by 2050. Yet today, 30-40% of what we produce is lost or wasted.

What can – or should – public buyers do to tackle this phenomenon?

The way I see it, the responsibility of public actors lies mainly in securing the initiatives launched by other authorities. With this in mind, the issue of regulation is crucial. It is also important to be able to better quantify the phenomenon at every stage of the food supply chain, by starting with a common definition and comparable estimates in all the EU’s member states. Today, only one quarter of these countries have data of a sufficient quality.

Through studies like ours, public institutions can also contribute to the identification and sharing of good initiatives, as well as information about practices that lead to increased waste.

And the private actors?

Restauranteurs have a number of options at their disposal, which are simply “good practice”. They can allow customers to serve themselves, offer different sizes of the same dish, discount products that are close to the end of their life, etc.

For producers and distributors, it is about committing to a real paradigm shift: changing from a logic of “selling more” to one of “selling better”. Beyond its relatively small impact on the volume of produce wasted, distributors play the role of a key link in the chain, because of their ability to influence activities both higher up and lower down the supply chain.

The various “facilitators” (associations, collectives, etc.)  can also help in the anti-food waste movement by bringing together different actors and educating consumers, who have often “forgotten” many simple but fundamental actions like making a shopping list to avoid blindly falling for the power of supermarket marketing.

What do you think of the series of measures adopted by France in February? Will it allow the country to become the most proactive country in Europe, as the MP and rapporteur Guillaume Garot said?

The French law, without doubt, constitutes a positive first step, particularly as it has led to increased public awareness. But it seems we need to go further by developing complementary regulatory instruments – particularly with regard to the redistribution of food – to encourage action while providing the necessary legal security.

Our next study will focus on the identification of possible standardised measures at the European level.

Food for thought: Reducing food waste

In 2050, over 9 billion people will live on this planet and feeding them will be a challenge. Increasing food availability has always been the main solution to achieve a food secured future.

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