Innovation at the heart of food waste prevention

Written by Ulrike Müller on 24 January 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Food is one of our most precious resources, therefore it is time we found innovative ways to prevent wasting it, writes Ulrike Müller.

Ulrike Müller | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


Food is one of our most valuable resources, although continuously falling food prices point to the contrary.

As a dairy farmer, I know first-hand how much work it takes to produce food. Still, we throw it away every single day.

According to the comprehensive FUSIONS study on food waste, approximately 88 million tonnes of food are wasted in the EU per year.


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The same study says that households are responsible for 53 per cent of food waste. With a population of more or less 510 million, the average European personally disposes about 90 kilogrammes of food per year.

That is nearly two kilogrammes per week. I think we can agree that this is too much. Unfortunately, it is only half of per capita food waste, because it happens all along the food supply chain, at production and processing level, in retail and in catering services.

This issue is part of the circular economy package we are currently working on. So let us have a look at it from that perspective. At the moment, our economy is still rather linear. We exploit resources, use them for products and when they break or we don't need them anymore, we dispose of them. That is inefficient. 

First of all, we have to pay for disposal. Second, resources get scarcer, hence more expensive. And third, we lose valuable resources by taking them out of the economy. Yes, we have started doing a bit of recycling.

But we are far from achieving a truly circular economy that puts our resources to efficient use and creates market opportunities by keeping them in the loop. This also applies to food. We need to make better use of this resource.

The issue of food waste, of course, is more complex than just creating markets. It is also about our moral responsibility as a wealthy society to ensure appropriate nutrition for the less fortunate among us. The 88 million tonnes of food waste go along with the alarming figure of 55 million Europeans that cannot afford a quality meal every other day.

This clearly cannot only be addressed by enabling markets. However, I am convinced that innovation is the source of our current wealth and progress. The fundamental principle of innovation is a flexible framework that allows people to be creative in finding solutions. 

And I am also convinced that innovative solutions developed by local stakeholders will play a key role in effectively tackling food waste.

It is still early days, so we are far from having found the best and most efficient solutions yet. This is why we need to focus on making best use of available knowledge and on learning more. Considering this, the fight against food waste stands on three pillars of innovation.

The first pillar is innovation in education. Households are the largest source of waste, therefore consumer education is key. There are already many initiatives by consumer and retail organisations, but they mostly use conventional booklets or desktop websites. 

This does not fit in today's media usage patterns. We need to develop better information tools that are easily accessible when needed, for example in the supermarket or in the kitchen.

However, this is not enough. To more and more people, food is merely a commodity. Less and less people prepare meals from fresh food themselves.

We need to raise awareness on the value and origin of food. Special project weeks in schools could be part of the answer. I expect the newly founded EU platform on food losses and food wastage to deliver on this. 

Generally, I see its role as an information broker that gathers widespread knowledge and develops tools to facilitate communication towards and between stakeholders. Given that food waste is a local problem under specific regional conditions, we need to enable local actors to cooperate.

Currently, the many retailers willing to donate are handicapped in many member countries by VAT and liability issues and unclear legislation. But this is already being addressed by the Commission and I think they are on the right track.

The second pillar is innovation in cooperation. What is not yet addressed appropriately is making cooperation easy for willing stakeholders. When it comes to donating surplus food for example, matching the supply of retailers and caterers on the one hand, and the demand of food aid organisations on the other, is still a major issue.

In rural areas, managing logistics is challenging. Part of the solution might be to provide a standardised platform tool that can be adapted by local and regional authorities to match supply and demand and to simplify logistics.

The third pillar is innovation in technology. We do not only need to innovative in the way we communicate and cooperate. Packaging materials is a field that can contribute to the reduction of food waste. 

Packaging that extends shelf life is already available, as well as boxes that for example better prevent food loss in transport. Smart packaging that monitors the condition of perishable food is being developed. As legislators, we must look into promoting the development and use of such material innovations.

As I said, we must not forget that food is one of our most valuable resources. It is high time to come up with mechanisms and strategies to fight its senseless waste.

 

About the author

Ulrike Müller (DE) is Parliament's ALDE group shadow rapporteur on resource efficiency: reducing food waste, improving food safety

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