An estimated 88 million tonnes of food are wasted throughout Europe, and the environmental impact of food waste globally is devastating. If the world’s food waste was a country, it would have the third largest carbon emissions after the US and China. Further, 28% of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow food that is wasted – equal to the total land area of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan combined. This leads to deforestation and an erosion of biodiversity, because global demand for more agricultural land is one of the biggest pressures to impinge on rainforests and habitats worldwide. The irrigation water used globally to grow food that is wasted would be enough for the domestic needs (at 200 litres per person per day) of 9 billion people – the projected population of the planet by 2050. There are an estimated 55 million people in food poverty in Europe, and the food wasted throughout the continent could feed them 9 times over.
I think this is a tragedy, and that’s why I, as part of This Is Rubbish, launched a petition to ask Europe to halve its food waste by 2030, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth. We’re part of a growing movement that includes the Sustainable Food Trust and many other organisations who’ve joined together across Europe to support this fight against Europe’s food waste.
I’ve been campaigning on food waste for seven years. Since then, I’ve seen literally millions of vegetables left to rot in the field because they were a bit small or imperfect looking. I’ve distributed thousands of loaves of bread in homeless hostels that were all destined for the bin. And I’ve talked with businesses forced to waste food they’ve worked hard to produce because of supermarket policies, like order cancellations. Only this week, we saw 300 tonnes of produce per day thrown away on some fields in Belgium. It breaks my heart to see this food needlessly wasted in the face of global hunger and environmental crises.
However, alongside this I’ve also seen an awe-inspiring food waste movement developing. Since Tristram Stuart’s book Waste catapulted the issue into the limelight in 2009 (I got my copy for free, ironically, as damaged stock about to be thrown away by a bookshop), I’ve seen food waste rise to become one of the most talked about issues in the press, with big players like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall appearing in major primetime shows on the issue. There are now countless incredible food waste redistribution charities and businesses that make-up an inspirational and thoroughly collaborative food waste movement.
Even supermarkets are beginning to wake up and take notice, often putting food waste at the heart of their CSR strategies. It seems like every other day now they release news of a new redistribution scheme or wonky vegetable range. There’s still a very long way to go, but we’ve come a long way too. And this trend is rippling out through Europe, with a movement that is inspiring the continent. The tide is turning.
But so many of these initiatives are only able to chip away at the sidelines of food waste, and many of them are voluntary, run on a shoestring. The action from businesses that we’ve had to date has often been disjointed and patchy. Incredible things have been achieved, but in the face of 88 million tonnes of food wasted in Europe, we’re collectively only scratching the surface.
That’s why we need massive international cooperation on food waste, with governments committed to concrete action on the issue. It’s really time to step things up a gear. And we are at a tipping point, where such an agreement might finally be possible.
The European Parliament are on the cusp of a vital vote to decide on whether to halve Europe’s food waste by 2030, as part of the Circular Economy Package. This could be the most ambitious, legally binding target on food waste that the world has ever seen, setting a global example.
And the target would become UK law before the country leaves the European Union, consequently shaping the UK’s approach to food waste even after Brexit. The British Government would need to change the law if they want to back down on the commitment. This could be our last chance to get such a strong target embedded in UK law.
The history of food waste targets shows just how vulnerable they are to being watered down. Last year, it was revealed that the latest draft version of the Circular Economy Package had weakened recycling and waste targets due to corporate lobbying.
As the final stages of negotiations begin, the agreement is still in danger of being weakened. Halving food waste could become an ‘aspirational’ voluntary target, making it easy to ignore. Some versions of the agreement even sideline the mountains of food wasted on farms and in factories, even though, according to the FAO’s estimates these may account for up to 59% of Europe’s food waste, and some businesses waste more in a day than a person does in their home for a year.
We need an ambitious agreement to catalyse food waste reduction in Europe that’s farm-to-fork and binding, so that it doesn’t get sidelined and ignored by nation states.
Now an incredible movement is beginning to mobilise around Europe to call for action. Already 19 organisations from across Europe have backed our statement calling on the European Parliament to cut Europe’s food waste in half. They range from Feedback, the organisation Tristram Stuart founded, Europe-wide environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth Europe and national groups like Stop Food Wasting Movement Denmark, to think tanks and consultancy firms like the New Economics Foundation and Orbisa. We’re pleased to say that the Sustainable Food Trust is now also a member of this group. This is already an unprecedented coalition of organisations linking food waste movements across the continent, and support is growing all the time.
We invite you to join our growing movement by signing our petition: https://www.change.org/p/let-s-cut-europe-s-food-waste-in-half
Please sign and share it with all your friends. Together, we can persuade the EU to take the lead in ending food waste and the needless hunger and environmental destruction it causes.