Laying down measures, the key to food waste prevention in Europe

If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter in the world as per the UN, who also quantified the carbon footprint of the resources needed to produce the wasted food to a staggering 3.3 billion tons of CO2. The European Green Deal seeks to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, becoming the first neutral resource-efficient economy. Drastically reducing wasted and lost food would help lower GHG emissions, which is key to delivering the Green Deal and ensuring long-term sustainability. Therefore, the EU is also committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 12.3 that aims to reduce global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 50% until 2030.

The abundance-scarcity paradox shows that although we generate million of tonnes of food waste yearly in the EU, around 112 million EU citizens are at risk of poverty or social exclusion and every second day, around 40 million people cannot afford a nutritious quality meal. Worldwide, the situation is much worse, FAO data disclosing that in 2020, over 3 billion people could not afford a healthy diet.

The latest available EU data shows that in our Union about 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually. This value corresponds to an economic loss of associated market value estimated at 143 billion euros. Despite the fact that we are throwing away so much food, food security is a recurring hot topic at the European Parliament, mirroring and voicing the distress of EU producers and consumers alike.

The war raging in Ukraine gave rise to a steep spike in energy prices, an increase in fertilizer availability and associated production costs, and inflation, challenging farmers and fueling concerns over global food security. The 2022 high temperatures and severe droughts all over Europe, deemed by the JRC (Joint Research Center) as one of the worst over the past 5 centuries, led to dry river beds, wildfires, historic lows for lakes, (re)discovery of archeological sites and resurfacing of hunger stones. The depletion of water availability in soils caused significant declines in crops, with estimates by the JRC for maize, soybean, and sunflowers in the EU showing a decrease of -16%, -15%, -12% with respect to the last 5 years average. Livestock productivity was also challenged, hot and dry conditions directly affecting animals and fodder availability.

The time to increase our efforts to tackle food loss and waste is now. Policy making can help reduce food waste all cross the EU. For example, I believe that transforming organic waste into renewable fertilisers may help farmers and ensure crop productivity. We know that 55% of food waste is generated in households while the remaining 45 % occurs upwards in the food supply chain. I strongly encourage Member States to develop and implement long-term national food waste prevention strategies, with clear actions, instruments and objectives, focusing on empowering consumers to make more informed decisions.

Raising consumer awareness, altering policies to revolutionize our food system and changing habits to promote a healthier life style, all in line with the Farm to Fork Strategy, can prevent food waste, resulting in lower GHG emissions, less money spent on groceries, more equity through surplus redistribution and a circular, sustainable use of our resources.

What has the EU done so far? What is expected?

On 16 May 2017, we adopted a resolution at European Parliament on reducing food waste and improving food safety, stressing the urgent need for action. We called on the Commission to provide a EU definition of food waste, to develop a common methodology to measure wasted food, to facilitate and enable tax exemptions on food donations, and to analyse the possibility of establishing legally binding reduction targets by 2020. We also requested a revision of labelling in order to prevent food waste. On 15 January 2020, we adopted a new resolution on the European Green Deal, calling for a food waste reduction target of 50% in the EU by 2030 as per our commitment to the SDGs.

As a result, the EU food donation guidelines were adopted in 2017 to facilitate compliance of providers and recipients of surplus food with relevant regulatory EU requirements (e.g. food safety, food hygiene, traceability, liability, VAT, etc.). Subsequently, in 2019, the Commission adopted the Delegated Decision (EU) 2019/1597 regarding a common EU methodology and minimum quality requirements for the uniform measurement of levels of food waste. Member States have started collecting food waste data since 2020 and have to report it in 2022. All the information will be transparently disclosed on the EU Platform on food losses and food waste. Moreover, in 2020, the Farm to Fork Strategy was published, announcing the plan for the requested actions on reducing food waste. As per the Farm to Fork information campaign, nearly half of all consumers don’t clearly understand expiry dates on food labels and estimates show a 10% reduction of Europe’s food waste could be avoided with better labelling. The proposal for revising the EU rules on date marking (‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates) will be finalised end 2022 or early 2023 at the latest. Another proposal is expected in 2023 for legally binding targets on food waste reduction.

The revised Waste Framework Directive, adopted in 2018, sets an EU-wide definition of food waste, requires Member States to reduce wasted food at each stage of the supply chain, prepare food waste prevention programmes, encourage food donation or other types of redistribution, and respect the waste hierarchy for food.

The corresponding priority order for food waste prevention and management at EU level is the following: prevention – reuse for human consumption (including redistribution) – reuse for animal feed – revalorisation of by-products – recycling for nutrient recovery (composting, biofuel, etc.), – energy recovery – disposal. A new revision for the Waste Framework Directive is scheduled for 2023.

What can you do about it?

Since more than half of the food wasted originates in households, each and every one of us has an essential role to play. It is important to recall that we should never buy food when hungry. Drafting a grocery list to cover provisions for several days, and sticking to it is also recommended. Make use of your leftovers, rotate food (first in – first out) and ensure proper food portioning, opting for refilling in smaller portions as needed. Inform yourself about optimal freezing or storing conditions depending on product type and share tips and good practices for preventing food waste with others. Apply the waste hierarchy and take away the food you are unable to finish when eating out. Whenever possible, buy locally and seasonally, and be aware at all times regarding the unconsumed food products you have at home. Understand the labelling on the products before you buy them. Last but not least, donate the food you are unable to consume before it expires.

We should all remember that by reducing our discarded food we contribute to biodiversity preservation and climate change mitigation. More effort is needed on EU, national, regional, local and individual levels to create a collective conscience set on reducing food waste, that can deploy a circular and sustainable EU bioeconomy, providing new business opportunities while enabling a more equitable society where no one is left behind.