In a world with a growing population but a finite amount of arable land, food waste is becoming a hot button issue.
The figures are staggering: according to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers somewhere between 30 to 50 per cent of the world’s food is lost somewhere down the chain. Some major systemic changes are needed.
Food has a relatively high ecological footprint in terms of water, agricultural chemicals, and energy. When food is wasted, these are squandered too. Discarded food that goes into the garbage will rot and produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25-100 times as powerful as CO2. This can be avoided by composting, and persuading your council to introduce green waste bins.
Supermarkets can play an upstream role in causing waste if they are fussy about the size and shape of vegetables. Recently this issue has been tackled by Jamie Oliver among others, and some retailers have responded to public sentiments by selling unusually shaped produce at discounted prices.
Further supermarket waste occurs downstream if food is thrown out while still edible. One response to this is a subculture of dumpster diving, where food is rescued from skips. Sometimes frowned on by ‘respectable’ society, it is nevertheless a very hands-on way to confront the waste issue. In response, supermarkets have been known to lock bins, pour in bleach, and open packages. Part of their motivation is a fear of getting sued if foragers fall ill.
In France, a movement against supermarket food waste was recently started by Arash Derambarsh, from Courbevoie in the north-western suburbs of Paris. A bespectacled young councillor from the centre-right of politics, he appears like an unlikely activist. However on three evenings a week, with the help of a small team, he has been handing out unsold food from a local supermarket after it closed. Of the hundred recipients, most are on low incomes.
A petition that Derambarsh created on Change.org received more than two hundred thousand signatures, attracting the interest of French politicians. In turn, legislation was put forward by former French food minister Guillaume Garot, and passed unanimously in May 2015. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate in France is a strong moral objection to food waste that other more laissez-faire countries seem to lack.
Starting in July 2016, larger supermarkets with more than 400 square metres will be required to either give unsold food to charities or to pass it on to farmers as animal feed or compost. France is the first country to pass such a measure,although southern Belgium already requires supermarkets to give food discards to charity.
Looking at the big picture, supermarkets are unfortunately the tip of a squandered food iceberg. EU statistics indicate that the largest waste sectors are households (42%), food and drink production (39%), and restaurants and food service (14%), with retail and wholesalers responsible for just 5%. France aims to halve this waste by 2025 via a range of largely voluntary measures including encouraging a habit of taking home uneaten restaurant food in ‘le doggy bag.’
For his part, Derambarsh has been emboldened by his success in France, and intends to pursue the supermarket food waste cause on the international stage. A new Change.org petition to end the practice in Europe has attracted well over six hundred thousand signatures. Becoming a minor international celebrity has had other consequences, including the acquisition of 133,000 Twitter followers.
Encouragingly, supermarkets are increasingly donating their unsold food voluntarily. In Australia, Woolworths is pursuing a goal of reducing organic waste to zero by the end of 2015. Most Woolworths stores donate their waste to food rescue operations, which redistribute it to people who need it. Similar programs are being run by some Coles and Aldi branches.Worries about the potential risk of getting sued as a result of food donations were tackled by 2005 legislation protecting donors from being liable if the food was safe when it was handed over.
This heartening outcome in France is an example of how some ‘low hanging fruit’ in the sustainability arena can easily be tackled if governments are prepared to impose minor regulations on the business community.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
EU food waste petition
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