European Citizens’ Panel gives food for thought on reduction of food waste

European Citizens’ Panel gives food for thought on reduction of food waste
Citizens' Panel on reduction of food waste, 18 December 2022, credit: The Brussels Times

Ahead of the holidays season, the European Commission kicked off a European Citizens' Panel on how to step-up action to reduce food waste in the EU.

The event was the first of its kind of a new type of participatory democracy after the Conference on the Future of Europe ended in May 2022. As previously reported, the Commission intends to follow up the outcome of the Conference and transform its proposals into legislative action. Citizens Panels were launched to deliberate and make recommendations ahead of certain key proposals.

The Panels are composed of randomly selected citizens. They are representative of the EU's diversity in terms of geography (national and urban/rural origin), gender, age, socio-economic background and level of education. One third of the participants are young people under the age of 26.

“In a world where food security is under threat, reducing food waste becomes a moral and economic imperative on which we need to act,” said Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, opening the panel (16.12.2022). “I look forward to the insights and recommendations of participating EU citizens on how we can collectively work together to change our habits and business operations.”

The Conference on the Future of Europe resulted in an agreed set of 49 detailed proposals, each one with an overall objective and  altogether over 300 concrete measures for implementation, based on feedback and ideas from  citizens participating in the plenary and previous citizens panels during the Conference.

The food waste reduction measure is found under the first policy area on "Climate change and the environment" and states briefly: ‘Apply circular economy principles in agriculture and promote measures against food waste’.

Public consultation

In fact, the Commission started a public consultation process on a legislative proposal already in October 2021. The consultation, which was directed to stakeholders in the food supply chain but also open to citizens, was closed in August 2022 and resulted in a summary report. Respondents were mostly EU citizens (35%), company/business organizations (22%), and business associations (20%).

It emerges from the summary report that almost half of the respondents requested to remain anonymous. The distribution of responses by EU country is uneven, with most replies coming from Belgium, Germany, Italy and France in that order. The high number of respondents from Belgium (119) is assumed to reflect the fact that Brussels hosts many of the stakeholders and interest groups.

In the inception impact assessment, the Commission defined the problem the initiative aims to tackle as follows:

“With up to 20% of all food produced in the EU ending up as food waste and 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually (including both edible and inedible parts), food waste is one of the largest sources of inefficiency in the agri-food chain and depletes limited natural resources, such as land, water and biodiversity, on which the food system depends.

Furthermore, along the food supply chain, food waste contributes 8-10% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. It also creates a pressure on the natural environment as well as on humans by wasting chemicals and fertilizer, causing pollution and harm.

Finally, food waste raises serious ethical considerations, both as a symbol of the environmental destruction caused by society and as symbol of injustice that so much food is thrown away while many people cannot afford a meal.”

However, food waste is much bigger than previously thought if food lost at the farming stage is included according to a report published by WWF in July 2021. The report indicated that over 15 % of food produced around the world is lost during harvest or slaughter operations. The new estimates mean that as much as 40% of all food is never eaten when both farming and post-farming are taken into account.

What do the EU figures tell?

Eurostat, the Commission’s statistical office, started to report on food waste levels in the EU as of 2020. This was also the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns might have impacted on the amount of food waste along the supply chain. Data from some member states, including Belgium, were not available or were estimated.

According to the aggregated estimates (Eurostat, 2022), nearly 57 million tonnes of food waste were generated in the EU in 2020 (127kg per person), with an associated market value estimated at €130 billion. Food waste accounts for about 5% of EU greenhouse gas emissions associated with the EU's overall food consumption footprint.

A breakdown by sector shows that households are responsible for 55% of all food waste, followed by manufacture of food products and beverages (23 kg, 18%), primary production (14 kg, 11%), restaurants and food services (12 kg, 9%) and retail and other distribution of food (9 kg, 7%). Eurostat estimated that 10% of all food supplied to EU consumers in the two last sectors was wasted.

50% of bread and vegetables are wasted, followed by diary products, according to Dutch food waste expert Toine Timmermans from Wageningen University who addressed questions from the participants in the citizens’ panel. Food waste is a moral issue with a geographical dimension in the EU. Families with young children tend to waste most.

He has been researching how food waste can be reduced. In Europe, much of the waste occurs because businesses are constantly urging people to buy more. On a global level the world is already producing enough food to feed 12 billion people, according to Timmermans. That would imply that up to one third of produced food is wasted as the world population reached 8 billion last November.

Brainstorming in panel

For the time being no food waste reduction targets have been set. The impact assessment report mentions two main options such as an overall target covering the whole food supply chain, from farm gate to final consumer, or targets covering only selected stages of the food supply chain. The targets can be the same for all member states or differentiated.

However, a majority of the respondents in the Commission’s consultation (74%) agreed or strongly agreed with the setting of legally binding food waste reduction targets through measures such as ‘improving efficiency along the food supply chain’, ‘education and training’, ‘facilitating donation of surplus food’ and ‘using surplus food and by-products’.

The participants in the citizens' panel were divided into discussion groups, were given topics to discuss and engaged the Commission with pertinent questions. They were among others worried whether the targets would be binding on the member states, the role of the Commission in monitoring the new food waste directive, the quality of data on food waste and the issue of adapting supply to demand.

The discussions resulted in a large number of concrete suggestions in areas such as menu sizes and left-over consumption, learning and awareness raising, initiatives to be adopted by supermarkets, economic incentives to reduce corporate food waste, and the promotion of food products from local farmers. The suggestions will serve as input to the Commission’s legislative proposal.

The participants were sent home with an appeal to fill in food waste diaries and meal grocery lists.  Next meeting will take place online on 20-22 January and will be followed by a final session on 10-12 February in Brussels, with the submission of the panel's report to the Commission.

The Commission plans to adopt the legislative proposal by June 2023, a Commission official told the participants. It will then have to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council, a process which can take up to two years. After that it can take another year to transpose the directive into law by the EU member states. In a worst-case scenario the process will be finalized by 2026.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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