EU Commission drags its feet on food waste

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Bart Staes, Belgian MEP for the Greens group

Bart Staes, Belgian MEP for the Greens group

High-level decision makers at the European Commission are blocking its very own action plan to address food waste and to promote a sustainable food policy for Europe. Saying sorry will surely not be enough, writes MEP Bart Staes.

Bart Staes is a Belgian Green MEP and food spokesperson for the European Parliament’s Greens Group.

Even when the European Parliament and some NGOs have called for 2014 to be “the year against food waste” and even at a time when citizens are more and more sensitive to this issue, the EC has been dragging its feet to publish a communication called ‘Building a sustainable European food system’. It was announced that this communication would be published at the end of 2013, early 2014, after a very successful public consultation, end 2013, early 2014.

The 17-page text gathered signatures from three commissioners (DG Environment, DG Sanco and DG Agriculture) in April, well before the European elections. The EC secretariat-general, under the enlightened leadership of secretary-general Catherine Day, once again blocked this piece of progressive and environmental policy.

The outgoing environment commissioner, Janez Poto?nik, recently said in the Parliament’s committee on environment and food safety that the Commission’s policy developments on sustainable food, on environmental inspections, on access to environmental justice and endocrine disruptors are “ready to go and could be adopted practically immediately”.

Increasingly citizens, scientists, companies, organisations and policymakers are aware that the current food system is not sustainable and we will have to change throughout the food system. That means changing the (often unsustainable) ways we produce food, identifying why we are wasting so much of everything produced (at least 30% or 1.6 billion tons every year), it means changing our attitudes towards food.  Science shows us that we simply have no choice, if we want to be able to feed eight billion people in 2030 and with growing food insecurity.

The reluctant attitude of the European Commission (EC) is a cynical assault on common sense. The new argument of Commission spokespeople that a food waste target is already in the Waste Framework Directive is simply not enough to tackle this huge problem effectively.  I guess the current top officials with their blind focus on economic growth and trade think that environmental policies are too much of a burden of the EU’s recovery. They should know by now it is the other way round.

Sound environmental policies are not only what citizens expect, they are a basis for sustainable growth. An overwhelming majority of European citizens, 95%, recently said in a Eurobarometer poll that protecting the environment was personally important to them, over half of Europeans think the EU is not doing enough to protect the environment, and almost one quarter are particularly concerned by our consumption habits.

When it comes to food waste, there are many ethical, environmental and social arguments, but also economic reasons to counter this. Firstly, a more sustainable use of resources and energy means gains for every modern company and society at large. The EC estimates itself that every euro spent on fighting food waste, will prevent 250 kilo of food being wasted, with a value of €500.  That is what we call a good return on investment.  On top of this municipalities can save €9 (less waste to be treated) and indirectly we save €50 euro on environmental costs related to climate change.  As the food sector is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is crucial that the Commission has a clear strategy on sustainable food production and consumption in order to mitigate climate change. With recent reports citing that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have grown at its fastest rate in three decades, it is clear that we must act now. 

One of the nitty gritty details of the structural changes of the Commission, is that “food waste” was taken away from DG Environment and given to DG Sanco. This is no coincidence. It is clearly a political decision by the ones being busy with restructuring under the leadership of Catherine Day. The reason for this is that Mrs. Day and Barroso’s cabinet – aka the neo- liberal orthodox church – did not like that Poto?nik was in their eyes way too ambitious in proposing a very pragmatic and holistic approach to address the fundamental problems linked to Europe’s food production and consumption.

The blocked communication on sustainable food, to make the EU’s food system more sustainable, is a wake-up call to the European Union. This blocked action plan is not only relevant to address the issue of food waste. It is a particularly pertinent document because it looks at the whole food system, and the many aspects of sustainable food, that could guide the EU to move forward and secure the sustainable production and consumption of food in Europe in the coming years.

It is unrealistic to believe that addressing these issues would be a reason for citizens to shun the European Union. On the contrary; it could create more trust that the right measures are being taken for the common good of European citizens and the environment.

Therefore, I will next week urge the EC together with colleagues from as much political groups as possible, to publish this important piece of work, which would serve to provide European policymakers and legislators with the necessary “food for thought”. 

Last but not least, the remark by a EC spokesperson that my criticism on this issue was “an example of bashing of the EC by Bart Staes” says something about their respect for elected members of parliament and how serious some at the EC take democratic control.     

This weekend the Belgian NGO umbrella organisation 11.11.11 launched their campaign on food waste, Sorry is not enough (NL). 

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