In the developed world, most people feel a pang of guilt as they scrape uneaten food off their plate into the bin, or throw away food that has passed its expiry date. But food waste is a daily reality in the European Union, largely unremarked, and a matter of routine. Finding a way to stop the waste is a real challenge.
According to the European Commission, the EU wastes 90 million tonnes of food every year during the production, transport and consumption phases. That is an average of 180 kilogrammes per person, much of it still suitable for human consumption.
Studies have estimated that half of all food produced globally is thrown away. In the past year the EU has set a series of informal goals in response to nascent concern over the issue. Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted in an own-initiative resolution calling for the EU to halve its food waste by 2025.
“In Europe and North America, in the previous decades, when food production was abundant, food waste was not a policy priority, which led to an overall increase in food waste along the food-supply chain,” the resolution stated. It called on the Commission to “analyse the causes and effects of the disposal, wastage and land-filling annually in Europe of approximately 50% of the food produced and to ensure that this includes a detailed analysis of the waste, as well as an assessment of the economic, environmental, nutritional and social impacts”.
The resolution also called for food labelling to be less confusing. Research in the UK, for example, has shown that consumers often mistake a ‘best before’ label for an expiry date, and throw out food prematurely. It also calls for a harmonised definition of ‘food waste’ across the EU.
For several years there have been calls for the Commission to propose a directive dedicated to food waste. But, given that waste takes place at consumer, retailer and producer level, it is a tricky policy area to manage. In its resource-efficiency roadmap, published last year, the Commission promised to develop a methodology for sustainability criteria for key food commodities by 2014, and to set a milestone of halving food waste by 2020, five years earlier than suggested by the Parliament. It also called on member states to address food wastage in their national waste-prevention programmes by 2013.
Next year, the Commission will publish a communication on sustainable food that will suggest ways to lessen the environmental impact of food waste. In the EU, the food-and-drink value chain causes 17% of direct greenhouse-gas emissions and 28% of material resource use, according to the Commission. It is also a major user of water. The communication will suggest policy paths to reduce this footprint.
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