Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

EU serves up soft proposals on food waste

  • Christmas is a time when many Europeans prepare more food than they can eat (Photo: Simon Tregidgo)

The holiday season has arrived.

All over Europe, people will gather with family and friends to exchange gifts, play games, watch television – and throw away ridiculous amounts of perfectly edible food.

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  • In the UK alone, every Christmas consumers throw away the equivalent of 2 million turkeys (Photo: Freedfoodphotos.com)

In the United Kingdom alone, every Christmas consumers throw away the equivalent of 2 million turkeys, 74 million mince pies, and 5 million Christmas puddings, according to a 2012 estimate by multinational Unilever.

Throughout the year, around 100 million tonnes of food are wasted every year in the European Union – worldwide it is estimated that a third of food is thrown away, although not only by consumers. Often food does not even reach consumers' homes because it is deemed too ugly to be sold, for example.

However, under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission has apparently decided to take a soft touch approach. It leaves the issue mostly to member states and has opted to focus on non-binding measures in a strategy paper published earlier this month.

This is not because the EU has not publicly acknowledged the problem.

"Food waste is a priority area where we want rapid change," Juncker's right-hand man, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said early December. "It is economically, socially and quite simply morally unacceptable that one third of the food worldwide is wasted," he added.

The accompanied economic loss from food waste is estimated to be €200 billion in the EU, according to a staff working document published in September 2014, in the final months of the Jose Manuel Barroso administration.

Food waste also cause greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. The emissions resulting from food waste amount to roughly the same volume as those emitted by Romania.

Three options

The 2014 paper assessed the impact of three options:

Option 1: “Take no additional action”

Option 2: “Establish a standardised methodology for food waste data collection and compulsory reporting by Member States”

Option 3: “Setting of targets (binding or non-binding) for food waste prevention”

The document said that option 1 – no action at EU level – “will likely result in a continued increase in food waste”.

The second option “would provide a clearer picture of food waste quantities, sources and treatment” and is “likely to also have the effect of stimulating preventative action at member state level”.

However, it added “it seems unlikely that this impact would be significant before 2020 or 2025”.

The third option would be the one that the commission thought would yield the best results, both in environmental and economic terms.

Circular economy

The impact assessment followed a few months after the commission presented its first strategy paper for a “circular economy” - a buzzword used to describe a system where resources are re-used, repaired, and recycled, rather than thrown away.

In the 2014 paper on circular economy, the Barroso commission proposed a 30 percent reduction target for food waste by 2025.

But when the Juncker commission withdrew the circular economy package, and presented an alternative, “more ambitious” strategy on 2 December this year, the reduction target had been removed.

Instead, the 2015 circular economy paper referred only to a 50 percent reduction target for 2030, which has been agreed as part of the worldwide Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are not legally binding.

Moreover, the lack of the 2025 proposal goes against the wishes of a majority in the European Parliament, who specifically asked for it in a text it approved last June.

Methodology and biennial reports

The paper, subtitled "An EU action plan for the Circular Economy", announced three measures to achieve the SDG goal: to create a “common EU methodology to measure food waste and define relevant indicators” and a “platform” for best practices; to “clarify EU legislation” and make it easier for food to be donated; and to review the 'best before' label.

This last issue, the label which many consumers misinterpret as a hard deadline instead of a suggestion, is one of several reasons why edible food is sometimes thrown away. The commission promised to “examine ways to improve the use of date marking by actors in the food chain and its understanding by consumers”.

Accompanying the strategy document was a legislative proposal which obliges member states to set up “food waste prevention measures”, measure their progress, and report every two years.

This suggests that the commission has chosen option two from the 2014 impact assessment, the one that predicted unclear results before 2025. That may also explain why the target for that year was traded in for a more general one five years later.

In the short term, most of the action to reduce food waste will have to come from lower levels of government – or from those doing the shopping for the Christmas dinner.

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