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As a new report unveils the magnitude of the EU’s food waste, the European Commission faces pressure to put an end to the scandal with ambitious targets, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

The EU wastes more food than it imports, damaging EU food security amid the cost-of-living crisis: it is the striking finding of a new report released this week by environmental NGO Feedback EU.

In 2021, the EU imported almost 138 million tonnes of agricultural products, for a total cost of €150 billion. At the same time, the report estimates that the EU wastes 153.5 million tonnes of food each year. A figure that is nearly double previous calculations, due to better availability of data on food wasted on farms.

All in all, food waste is estimated to cost EU businesses and households €143 billion a year, and to cause at least 6% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, in a critical moment for our food systems, facing the double crisis of agricultural losses due to last summer’s unprecedented droughts and skyrocketing food prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, about 20% of EU food production ends up in the bin.

Notably, the amount of wheat wasted in the EU is equivalent to approximately half of Ukraine’s wheat exports. Meanwhile, Eurostat data show that 33 million people cannot afford a quality meal every second day in the EU.

In light of this food waste scandal, an international movement including NGOs Feedback EU, European Environmental Bureau and Zero Waste Europe, food waste businesses Too Good to Go and OLIO, and members of the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste – the EU’s official advisory body on food waste – called on the EU to set legally binding targets for member states to slash EU food waste.

EU laws to the rescue?

The EU addresses food waste within the Waste Framework Directive, which was last revised in 2018. The law requires member states to cut food waste at each stage of the food supply chain, monitor food waste levels and report back regarding progress made.

Notably, the directive reaffirms the promise, made by EU countries in 2015 within the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. However, without ambitious and binding targets for governments to attend, this objective is bound to fail.

Piotr Barczak, Senior Policy Officer at European Environmental Bureau, told META: “All EU countries committed to halve food waste within the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. However, almost ten years later, they have not achieved much, and our economies still generate incredibly high amounts of food waste. The EU must urgently include measures in the EU Waste Directives to cut food waste along the whole supply chain – including production processing and food services.”

Today, the Commission has the opportunity to propose ambitious legally binding food waste reduction targets for EU member states, within its proposal for a revision of EU waste laws expected for Spring 2023. Negotiations with the European Parliament and Council will then decide on the ultimate targets, which should ensure member states honour their international commitment to halve food waste from farm to fork. If adopted, this would be the first legislation of its type in the world.

Halving food waste will also help the EU meet its commitments under the European Climate Law, the Global Methane Pledge, the Circular Economy Package, and the EU Green Deal. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emission in the world, after US and China.

Time to cover the field

Besides demanding legally binding targets, civil society organisations and businesses call on the European Commission, the European Parliament and member states’ governments not to forget the food loss and food waste that happen at the production and processing level.

The report by Feedback EU estimates that 89.8 million tonnes of food waste occur at primary production – three times as much as is wasted in EU households. Yet most of this waste is likely to fall outside of the scope of current EU food waste measurement and national reporting, which currently excludes food left unharvested or used on farms, locking it out of targeted reduction.

To address this gap, the joint statement calls on the Commission to expand the scope of food waste measurement and include “edible food left unharvested or used on farm at primary production”.

Besides, focusing on retail and consumer food waste only risks creating perverse incentives for food waste to be offloaded onto producers and processors, rather than reduced.

Frank Mechielsen, Executive Director at Feedback EU, said: “It’s critical that targets include waste on farms and from processing and food service businesses – if the EU limits targets to covering only retail and consumer food waste, our report finds that between 48-76% of total EU food waste would be excluded, which would leave most businesses causing food waste in supply chains unaccountable for food waste reduction.”

Hungry for waste prevention

The food waste scandal is not one that leaves people indifferent, and as rising food prices and cost of living crises hit, the loss of perfectly edible and nutritious food is even harder to tolerate.

Back in 2017, over 125,000 EU citizens had already signed petitions by Change.org and Global Citizen, calling on the EU to introduce a “binding target to cut EU food waste by 50% by 2030, from farm to fork”.

At the same time, the food waste outrage is just one aspect of a broader problem of wasteful use of resources. Our economic system is based on taking precious resources from the natural environment and processing them to create products too often bound to be thrown away. Last year, a report revealed how tonnes of unsold or returned products are destroyed every year by producers and online retailers, including textiles and consumer electronics as well as toys, drugs and food.

Barczak told META: “Every time we waste food, or any other product, we are not only wasting raw materials, but also the energy, labour and land used to produce it. At the same time, cutting waste is a crucial way to reduce our environmental and social impact without losing any comfort. This is why the Commission should no longer hesitate to set binding waste prevention targets for all member states”.

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