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Food and Agriculture

The “Secret Treasure” of Food Waste

Poland wastes at least 8.9 million tonnes of food every year. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu/IPS

WARSAW, Jun 14 2013 (IPS) - Twenty-nine-year-old Andrzej W. and his partner lived for almost a year off of food found in the trash bin of the upscale supermarket Piotr i Pawel in Muranow, a neighbourhood near the centre of the Polish capital Warsaw. And they ate in style.

“I can hardly name now the expensive cheeses and chocolates we found there, because I never buy them normally, they are luxury goods,” he says. “There was everything in these bins — vegetables, fruits, dairy, sweets, eggs, some close to expiry date, others past, eggs thrown away only because one or two were cracked, just like you see in American movies about dumpster diving.”

"Europe ignores the waste it generates abroad just as it ignores polluting emissions created by its outsourced industries.” -- Tristram Stuart of Feeding the 5000

When he discovered Piotr i Pawel, Andrzej had occasionally retrieved vegetables and fruits thrown away at other markets in the city, but this was a whole new experience.

“I felt like Ali Baba finding the secret treasure!” he says. “I was so happy to find all this great food, but at the same time I felt angry that so much gets wasted and sad that I cannot take it all away with me.”

So he told friends, who told other friends, and the bin gradually became the go-to place to get food for squatters, as well as homeless and poor people. When the managers of the store caught on to the practice earlier this year, they locked the bin and refused to discuss its reopening with Andrzej.

The ambit of two categories of people – activists and the poor – dumpster diving is not common in Poland. But the practice probably has a future this country: with a population of 38.5 million, Poland, the largest among the post-socialist states which joined the European Union, already ranks fifth in the EU when it comes to food waste.

According to data from the European Commission, 89 million tonnes of food are wasted yearly in the EU, equalling 179 kilogrammes per person. Poland alone wastes 8.9 million tonnes every year, followed by the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and France. This data, the most recent available, is from 2006 and some food activists argue that it is a gross underestimation.

At the same time, explains Maria Gosiewska from the non-profit Polish Federation of Food Banks, recent years have seen a serious push by the EU to reduce waste levels: at the end of 2011, the EU executive (the European Commission) called for reducing edible food waste by 50 percent by 2020; the European Parliament also passed a resolution setting a reduction target of 50 percent of all food waste by 2025. With time, national governments will have to take on such objectives.

Gosiewska’s organisation coordinates 29 food banks operating across Poland which collect rejected food from producers and intermediaries and pass it to the needy. She hopes activists in her country will be able to use this European wind of change to push through legislative reforms.

For example, her organisation argues for a scrapping of the VAT tax for food donations. While NGOs have been calling for this measure for 10 years, for the moment only producers who donate food are spared the tax, while retailers are not, so the untapped potential is huge.

Tristram Stuart, founder of the UK anti-food waste movement Feeding the 5000, says his group is working in partnership with the U.N. and the EC to replicate their campaign globally, including in Central and Eastern European locations such as Budapest and Prague.

“Food waste in these countries may become more of a problem as consumption increases,” he said, “so it might be a good idea to nip the worst effects of Western food systems in the bud before they take root.”

Consumers in rich countries are wasting as much as 10 times more food than those in poor countries.

According to Stuart’s book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009), the U.S. and Europe have twice as much food as needed to meet the nutritional needs of their people and up to half of this food is wasted. The approximately 40 million tonnes of food wasted annually in the U.S., claims the book, would be enough to feed the world’s one billion malnourished people.

Irrigation water used to produce food that is wasted globally would be enough for the domestic needs of nine billion people (as many as we are expected to be in 2050).

According to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, between 1.2 and 2.0 billion tonnes of food are wasted annually in the world: in poorer countries, lack of infrastructure and supermarket demands on producers cause field waste, the primary component of food waste there; in rich countries, consumer waste is the greatest culprit.

The report recommends intervening at all levels where waste is produced – on the farm, and on the side of retailers and consumers. It also advises specific technological fixes that could be implemented to reduce waste on farms in developing countries.

Stuart’s group, meanwhile, focuses on Western consumers, businesses and decision-makers. For one, they work on persuading supermarkets to relax their own esthetic standards (i.e., accept for sale products that do not have perfect shapes), which despite public perception are tougher than those imposed by the EU. At the same time, they conduct public awareness campaigns to teach consumers that “ugly” produce has the same nutritional value as the perfectly shaped sort.

Importantly, Feeding the 5000 wants Western countries and commercial actors to take responsibility for producer-level food waste in countries that export to Europe.

“The esthetic standards imposed by Western supermarkets on their suppliers in countries like Ecuador, Kenya and others generate farm waste there, and this is something that Europe needs to include in its food waste accounting,” Stuart tells IPS. “At the moment, Europe ignores the waste it generates abroad just as it ignores polluting emissions created by its outsourced industries.”

Finally, the group is working on changing EU legislation related to animal feed. The focus of a campaign launched Jun. 5 called The Pig Idea is on making it legal again in Europe to feed pigs with catering food waste. The current model, whereby European meat producers import cereals for animal feed (the EU imports 40 million tonnes of soy products annually, most for animal feed) is unsustainable, claims the group.

It is causing deforestation and biodiversity destruction in exporting countries, and contributes to the increase and overall volatility of global prices for staples. In turn, this makes it too expensive for poorer consumers around the world to afford food and for producers outside of Europe to feed their own stock.

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