How 'problematic buying practices' are leading to 153m tonnes of waste

20 September 2022

“Problematic buying practices” are contributing to millions of tonnes of food waste in the European Union (EU) each year, according to a report.

The report, by non-profit environmental advocate Feedback EU, said an estimated 153.5m tonnes of food is wasted by the EU annually, almost double previous estimates.

The figure is 15m tonnes more food than the EU imports and Feedback EU called efforts to reduce food waste “one of the most important actions we can take to fight the climate crisis and improve the resilience of our food system”.

The high levels of pre-retail food waste are a symptom of unequal power relationships between suppliers (farmers and processors) and buyers (retailers and their middlemen) and “problematic retailer buying practices”, said the report.

“The concentration of the retail sector allows powerful corporations to wield a great deal of power over actors upstream in the supply chain and to act with only their own bottom line in mind,” the report explained.

“These dynamics drive the creation of food waste, and if a food waste reduction target ends at the retail level, the problem may only become worse: retailers will have additional incentives to push their waste back onto manufacturers and farmers.”

Suppliers cited stringent cosmetic standards on food and rapidly-changing specifications without clear advance forecasting. Two-thirds of Flemish farmers were wasting food because of cosmetic rejections. The report suggested these standards fluctuate based on market demand – and thus are not actually about what customers are willing to consume.

Additionally, buyers are free to cancel farm orders at the last minute, making it impossible to find an alternative buyer before the product spoils. The report finds this is usually linked to buyers seeking the cheapest supplier available, and cancelling an order to save money if a lower price is found. Farmers are then forced to absorb the financial loss.

Wastage was found primarily in the production, processing, and food service sectors. The report urges the EU not to discount wastage from production and processing, as this accounts for up to a third of its total food loss.

“It is essential that any target include food loss and waste across the whole supply chain, not just the retail and consumer sectors,” the report stated.

“Excluding primary production, processing, and the food service sector would also create perverse incentives for member states and companies to achieve reductions in food waste by pushing risks and costs of food waste onto farmers and manufacturers, which in turn increases the risk of Unfair Trading Practices.”

The report called for six actions by the EU to reduce excessive food waste:

1. Set a legally binding target to reduce the EU’s food loss and waste by 50% by 2030.
2. Ensure this 50% target covers food loss and waste from all sectors farm-to-fork, including food service, processing, and primary production.
3. Extend mandatory food waste measurement to cover all primary production food waste.
4. Focus on industry leaders and the potential unleashed by regulation, not on the limitations of past voluntary action.
5. Foster an enabling policy environment for member states to share information and act.
6. Allow member states to use 2015 baseline data on food waste levels.

The report found reducing food waste would improve food security, save money for citizens, governments, and businesses, and support climate justice and human rights. Regulation on other environmental and social issues demonstrates that swift and significant progress can be made when appropriate measures are put in place, it suggested.

The report concluded: “Overlapping climate, health, and geopolitical crises highlight the scale of the work needed to transform our food system towards resilience and sustainability. Now is the moment for the EU to rise to the challenge.”

The report was based on the UNEP Food Waste Index and a comprehensive meta-study on primary production food loss and waste from WWF.

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