Policy changes helping avoid food waste

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Italy, known for its amazing food, is facing a related problem — food waste. According to government estimates, the country currently wastes about five million tons of food every year.

To combat the issue, the Italian government recently passed a new law aimed at making it easier for both retailers and consumers to prevent food waste. The law aims to cut food waste by 1 million tons each year.

Proponents of the law argue it will make it easier for businesses to donate food, as the law relaxes regulations that have kept some restaurants, farmers and retailers from donating their leftover or unsold food. The law will clarify that food can still be donated even if it has passed its sell-by date, and allow farmers to donate unsold food to charities without having to pay extra. It also earmarks 1 million euros to be used by the Italian agricultural ministry to research ways of packaging food that prevent it from spoiling in transit.

The law also envisions creating cultural changes in the way Italians think about food — such as encouraging patrons to take leftovers home in “doggy bags,” something that most Italians currently do not do.

Italian ministers estimate that the amount of food wasted throughout the country is costing Italian businesses and households more than 12 billion euros ($13.3 billion) a year, which equals about 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — no small amount, when one considers that the country currently has a public debt of 135 percent.

Last year, France became the first European country to pass a law aimed at targeting food waste, a problem that has begun to garner attention across Europe and around the world. The French law is more stringent than the law Italy just passed, as it imposes fines on supermarkets that fail to donate their unsold food. Italy’s law, on the other hand, is more incentive based, aiming to make it easier for businesses to donate their unsold wares without actively punishing them.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that 40 percent of the food produced in Europe ends up as waste, slightly higher than the global average of one-third. Beyond perpetuating hunger and food insecurity, food waste is a huge contributor to global climate change, with some 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent released from food waste each year.

In the past few years, both the public and private sector have begun taking steps to curb food waste, from grocery stores selling “ugly” produce at a discounted rate to governments setting ambitious reduction targets. In June of this year, a number of private and public institutions teamed up to release the first-ever international protocol for reducing food waste, which seeks to create a universal set of measurements and standards for both governments and private entities wanting to curb the amount of discarded food.

Can An International Standard Help End Food Waste?

Food waste is a huge international problem that costs the global economy billions of dollars each year and creates tons of methane gas, which helps fuel climate change. Nearly one-third of all food produced is wasted each year. If the emissions associated with all that wasted, rotting food were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the United States and China.

But combating the issue is difficult, in part because food waste is treated differently in different countries — in some places, for instance, food is not considered food waste if it is thrown away but used in compost.

Now, a new international protocol is hoping to set standards for measuring, reporting, and managing food waste across the globe. Created through a partnership with private and public organizations, the Food Loss and Waste Protocol is the first international standard that contains definitions and reporting requirements for participating businesses and governments.

“The reasons why food is being lost or wasted has to do with a whole cocktail of aspects — infrastructure, national policies, etcetera,” the FAO’s Robert van Otterdijk said on a press call. “Therefore it is very important that this standard has been developed, because this helps us address all these issues related to food loss and waste in a uniform way.”

The standard was developed by the Consumer Goods Forum, the FAO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the World Resources Institute following the 2013 Global Green Growth Forum. Organizers hope that countries will adopt the standard to help achieve the food waste reductions set forth in the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals, which call for a 50 percent reduction in global food waste by 2030.

Specific guidelines for how the standard will instruct countries and companies to measure their food waste are still being drafted, but the protocol includes three components that its creators think will help countries and companies better understand their food waste. The first is that the standard includes modular definitions of food waste that change based on what an entities end goal is — so if a country is interested in curbing food waste to fight food insecurity, its definition of food waste will be different than a country looking to curb food waste to fight climate change. Secondly, the standard includes diverse quantification options, which will allow a country or company with fewer financial or technical resources to obtain a general picture of their food loss and waste (countries will need to be transparent about what quantification methods they are using, so that the level of uncertainty is clear). Lastly, the standard is meant to be flexible enough to evolve over time, as understanding of food waste, quantification methods, and available data improves.

“The volumes of food waste really are the most stark examples of the inefficiencies in our food system,” James Lomax, program management officer with the UNEP’s Division of Trade, Industry and Economics, said on a press call. “This is going to become a clear way for countries and stakeholders within the food system to really mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through preventing food waste.”

A 2015 report from the U.K.-based Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP) found that on average, food waste costs countries about $400 billion globally each year. But food waste can happen for any number of reasons — in developing countries, it’s often because gaps in infrastructure make it difficult to transport food from the farm to consumers. In developed countries, however, most of the food waste occurs at the consumer level, either due to consumers purchasing too much, or throwing away perfectly good food because of misleading expiration labels. Food waste in developed countries is also occurs because of stringent aesthetic standards required by supermarkets, which stigmatizes misshapen but perfectly good fruits and vegetables.

Food waste has become a hot-button topic in recent months, buoyed by public awareness campaigns and legislative action in countries like the United States, Canada, France, and theUnited Kingdom. Some countries have even announced food waste reduction goals, with the United States pledging to reduce its food waste 50 percent by 2030.

But food waste reduction goals are difficult without a clear starting point, or transparent system of measurement, Craig Hanson, global director of the World Resources Institute’s Food, Forests, and Water Programs said on a press call.

“If the world is to seriously reduce food loss and waste, companies and countries need to more regularly measure it,” he said. “The challenge is that most countries have yet to set a baseline and start quantification, our hope is that this process can help catalyze that approach.”