FOOD WASTE: France’s war on waste makes it most food sustainable country

Americans lead the world in food waste

Globally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly $3 trillion

A war on waste food in France, where supermarkets are banned from throwing away unsold food and restaurants must provide doggy bags when asked, has helped it secure the top spot in a ranking of countries by their food sustainability.

Japan, Germany, Spain and Sweden rounded out the top five in an index published the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which graded 34 nations based on food waste, environment-friendly agriculture and quality nutrition.

It is “unethical and immoral” to waste resources when hundreds of millions go hungry across the world, Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said at the launch of the Food Sustainability Index 2017 on Tuesday.

“We are all responsible, every person and every country,” he said in the Italian city of Milan, according to a statement.

One third of all food produced worldwide, 1.3 billion tons per year, is wasted, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Food releases planet-warming gases as it decomposes in landfills. The food the world wastes accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any country except for China and the United States.

“What is really important is the vision and importance of (food sustainability) in these governments’ agendas and policies,” Irene Mia, global editorial director at the EIU, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It’s something that is moving up in governments’ agendas across the world.”

Global hunger levels rose for the first time in more than a decade, last year, with 815 million people, more than one in 10 on the planet, going hungry.

France was the first country to introduce specific food waste legislation and loses only 1.8 percent of its total food production each year. It plans to cut this in half by 2025.

“France has taken some important and welcome steps forward including forcing supermarkets to stop throwing away perfectly edible food,” said Meadhbh Bolger, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

“This needs to be matched at the European level with a EU-wide binding food waste reduction target.”

High-income countries performed better in the index, but the United States lagged in 21st place, dragged down by poor management of soil and fertilizer in agriculture, and excess consumption of meat, sugar and saturated fats, the study said.

The United Arab Emirates, despite having the highest income per head of the 34 countries, was ranked last, reflecting high food waste of almost 1,000 kilos per person per year, rising obesity and an agriculture sector dependent on depleting water resources, it said.

Americans Lead the World in Food Waste

Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food. In fact, according to a July 2016 Guardian report roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.” Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.

What causes this? A major reason is that food is cheaper in the United States than nearly anywhere else in the world, aided (controversially) by subsidies to corn, wheat, milk, and soybeans. But the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, enabled in large part by a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food. Fruits and vegetables, in addition to generally being healthful, have a tendency to bruise, brown, wilt, oxidize, ding, or discolor and that is apparently something American shoppers will not abide. For an American family of four, the average value of discarded produce is nearly $1,600 annually. (Globally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly $3 trillion.)

Writing about food waste for The Atlantic back in 2014, Elizabeth Segran gestured at both the shoppers who refuse to buy imperfect-looking fruit as well as the grocers who refuse to stock the shelves with any wonky-looking wares. “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes,” Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe’s Company, told her.

But that assumes such produce even reaches the stores. Quoting workers and experts at a variety of vantage points in the food system, The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg also reports that, “Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.”

“In my mind, the desire for perfect produce came about in the 1940s as housewives adapted to widespread refrigeration and new CPG [consumer packaged goods] products,” Eve Turow Paul, the author of A Taste of Generation Yum, writes in an email. “Suddenly, you could get a pineapple in Chicago in January. Wonderbread hit shelves a decade before. Perfection and manicured foods came to represent safety and new technology.”

It’s easy to see how this obsession might become amplified in an era of high foodie-ism and Instagram where a sort of heirloom airbrushing has taken hold. Writing in The Times in 2014, Pete Wells christened the extension of this phenomenon in restaurants as “camera cuisine,” where dishes are tailored for the patron as well as a “global club whose members, checking out their phones or laptops, constitute an invisible gallery in the dining room.”

Wells relays a story of being “shutter-shamed” after posting a picture of trout that did not meet a certain communal artistic benchmark. The retail version of this experience might be a farmer’s market where a bunch of ramps or sheaths of leeks would be shunted aside if they couldn’t pass muster on a Nancy Meyers set.

Paul pushes back against the idea that the anointed few seated at the head of the table might be oblivious to the cause of food waste. “Especially in the last year, ‘foodies’ and chefs have catapulted the issue of food waste into popular conversations,” she adds, naming initiatives by chefs and public intellectuals such as Dan Barber and Roy Choi as well as the pu pu platter of coverage of the issue in elite food magazines.

Last year, the Obama administration announced a public-private campaign to halve the more than two million calories that Americans waste annually by the year 2030 by focusing on improving food efficiency, recycling, decoding food labels, and finding ways to deliver food to the one-in-six Americans that are hungry. Meanwhile, start-ups like the Bay Area’s Imperfect Produce are starting to deliver ugly but otherwise consumable goods at a discount.

Elsewhere in the world, the tinkering between policy and public education is underway. France has banned supermarkets from throwing away food by directing them to compost or donate all expiring or unsold food. Germany is focusing on the issue in part by reforming expiration dates, which many argue are arbitrary and problematic.

The United States still may have the farthest to go, particularly on a cultural level. “My hope is that as food education proliferates, so will an appreciation for ugly fruits and veggies, biodiversity, local crops, and so much more, all of which can help mitigate food waste,” Paul adds. “Wouldn’t it be neat if the power of Instagram was used to share recipes for carrot top pesto and food scrap stock? Or if we had easy-to-use apps for sharing extra produce with neighbors or food pantries? Both ideas I’ve already seen foodies fiddling with.”

(Sources: Atlantic / World Economic Forum/ Ruairi Casey-Freelance Journalist)

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