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Food and sustainability

Who wastes the most?

Food is thrown away by producers, retailers, but above all by end consumers. It is a vicious circle that must be broken, starting by properly planning what we put in our cupboards. The European Union as a whole throws away about 90 million tons of food, at an average of about 180 kilos per person. “This waste comes from the whole food chain, from agricultural production to storage, processing, distribution, management and end consumption of food”, explains Soledad Blanco, the former Director of Sustainable Resource Management at the European Commission’s Environment DG. “Wasting food is economically damaging, environmentally wrong and morally unacceptable, especially when considering the quantity of resources required to produce this amount of food”. By tackling waste, we could guarantee up to three fifths of the increased demand required to feed the world’s population, which will reach over 9 billion people by 2050.

Discounts and labels
40% of the food on European supermarket shelves and refrigerators will be thrown away and end up in landfills. Producers must take their share of the responsibility, so much so that the European Union’s Retail Forum for Sustainability has recognised the important role which they play in helping to reduce food waste.
In fact, back in October 2012, this Forum published a document providing specific advice for retailers, regulatory bodies and other subjects involved. For example, retailers are advised to apply a discount and, where possible, give away products nearing their expiry date, a practice which is slowly catching on in many countries.
The phrases “use by” and “best before by” should also be better explained to consumers. In fact, these are just general guidelines: certain types of products may be safe to eat even after the date printed on the packaging.
It is also important to treat, preserve and use food more efficiently so we stop throwing away our leftovers, and to adjust pack sizes so everyone can find the right size for their actual consumption. Another possible alternative is to promote the sale of loose foods, which is already happening in certain hypermarkets.

Accepting imperfections
Food is simply too good to waste is the slogan of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), one of the American non-profit organisations leading the fight against food waste. But which industry sector wastes the most?
The first problem to solve in tackling the challenge of food waste is to quantify it properly. In fact, there is no common global definition of food waste and different countries associate this term with different meanings. Nevertheless, we have sufficiently reliable estimates.
For example, we know that in most cases, food is discarded when it does not meet the required standards (such as fruit and vegetables with certain minor aesthetic defects). In his book American Wasteland (2010), Jonathan Bloom points out that if we took all the tomatoes that are unsuitable for sale but would be fine for human consumption, we could fill a 10,000 kg lorry every 40 minutes. Farther down the supply chain, we find that about 20 million tons of food is thrown away by small and large supermarkets in the United States.
However, most waste occurs at home: 60% of all food waste happens here. Excessive portions, confusion over the expiry information on the label, or products bought on offer that get left in the fridge: these are just a few of the reasons behind household waste.
This is why each of us can do something to limit the problem: for example, learning to estimate our family’s food consumption properly, only buying what we need or food that has a longer expiry date, and planning our weekly meals a little better.
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Food and sustainability

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Food and sustainability

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Haley Swartz is a Research Program Coordinator for the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Haley researches food assistance programs and nutrition governance in developing and low and middle-income countries with Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Ethics & Global Food and Agriculture. Haley holds a Master of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Government, both from the University of Virginia.

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