New Internationalist

Tackling food waste, one big picnic at a time

Web exclusive

Thanks to grassroots action, corporations are being encouraged to divert edible excess from bins to bellies. Jemma Crew reports.

Julie Feyaerts
Volunteer cooks serving up thousands of free lunches in Brussels. Julie Feyaerts

The first day of April was hot, bright and sunny in Brussels: a pleasant surprise for a city with a grey reputation and for a month known for its light showers. But last Tuesday was unusual in one other respect. Around lunchtime, more than 6,000 meals were served to city workers, inhabitants and tourists – completely free of charge.

The event was one of several that have taken place in cities over the world during the last five years, organized by the Feeding the 5000 campaign and selected partners. In preparation for the feast, volunteers peeled and chopped more than 750 kilograms of surplus vegetables from nearby farms in Belgium and as far away as Kenya, which would otherwise have been left to rot in landfills. With its slogan ‘Filling bellies not bins’, the mass picnic aimed to educate the public about less wasteful ways of producing, selling and consuming food on a global scale. For Tristram Stuart, founder of the campaign, it also sent ‘a strong signal to decision-makers that the public are fed up with food waste’.

Making a meal out of nothing?

Julie Feyaerts
Julie Feyaerts

Although there is enough food to feed the world 1.5 times over, 1 in 8 people are going hungry. This in itself is shocking, but wasting edible food is not only an ethical issue. Food is expensive to dispose of and has enormous environmental impacts in terms of water, land and resource use. As it breaks down it produces methane – a greenhouse gas that has a warming effect 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Such wastage occurs across the whole supply chain, from field to fork, for various reasons including lack of consumer awareness, inadequate packaging of food in transit and storage. It may be convenient for businesses to say that most waste occurs in the home and to shy away from the responsibility of checking their own supply chains, but the truth is that the majority of it happens before produce even hits the shelves.

Green beans grown to varying lengths in Kenya’s rich soil are trimmed to fit into the boxes that will transport them to Europe for consumption; blemished but otherwise nutritionally perfect fruit is discarded because it does not tick the aesthetic boxes that supermarkets demand. And inaccurate predictions of demand or cancellations of orders from retailers leave farmers with no choice but to throw away excess produce they have spent months growing. It is estimated that, for each European citizen, 179 kilograms of food is wasted every year in the supply chain and at home. And roughly a third of the food for human consumption is wasted globally – that’s about 1.3 billion tonnes per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

No time to waste

Julie Feyaerts
Julie Feyaerts

In response to this, steps are slowly but surely being taken at European Union (EU) level. In 2011, the European Parliament passed a resolution on how to avoid food wastage. A Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe framework was launched in 2011 and as a result the European Commission is due to release a Communication on Sustainable Food in the coming months.

But certain member states are leading the way. In Belgium, businesses do not have to pay tax on the surplus food they give to charities. And Belgian regions are now requiring supermarkets to donate unsold food rather than destroy it, something Tristram Stuart describes as the most robust regulation on food since the Second World War.

In Britain, the Groceries Code Adjudicator Act implemented in June 2013 aims to oversee independently the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers, ensuring fair treatment and investigating complaints. Campaigners hope that this will mean that responsibility for food waste will be more equally shared across the supply chain, instead of resting with the producer. This would not only be fairer; it would incentivize businesses to avoid excess by producing more accurate forecasts.

And there is reason to be optimistic. Last year, Tesco became the first supermarket in Britain to agree to release publicly third-party-audited food waste data. Since then, its competitors have followed suit. When businesses operate in such close competition, it only takes one to make the first move for the others to follow quickly. In becoming more transparent and accountable, businesses have a real opportunity to trade efficiently and ethically one of the world’s most valuable commodities: food.

An appetite for action

Julie Feyaerts
Julie Feyaerts

While action at EU, national and corporate level is vital if a comprehensive, co-ordinated response to tackling food waste is to be reached, none of it is possible without sustained support from the public.

Managing Director at Feeding the 5000 Niki Charalampopoulou points out that businesses are not obligated to publish information on food waste. Tesco and others did so voluntarily, but not without the powerful combination of campaign-group pressure and supermarkets’ precarious courting of public opinion.

At a European Parliament public hearing last week, Professor Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, acknowledged that ‘people now have had enough of being just consumers and voters […] they want to be active citizens – they want to exercise democracy by taking initiatives at the local level’.

The popularity of events such as the one last Tuesday shows there is a real public appetite to take control of the food systems we buy into and eliminate waste. If we want to see change, we need to become active, critical and informed consumers and start asking questions – loudly and publicly. We can choose to purchase misshapen fruit and vegetables from alternative places such as farmers’ markets and we can pledge to take concrete steps to reduce food waste in our homes.

In a world where nearly 1 billion people do not have access to enough food to meet their minimum nutritional requirements, and with climate change an increasing concern, wasting food unnecessarily is an ethical, economical and environmental travesty. If we continue to consume passively now, and fail to move toward a more sustainable, efficient food cycle, it will be more than food that we are wasting in the long-term.

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