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17 Jun 2016

Give food a second chance. Smart projects to tackle food waste

One in every three kilos of food produced for human consumption ends up in the bin. This corresponds to 1.3 billion tonnes of food that are lost or wasted globally every year, not to mention economic losses of almost a trillion USD, according to FAO.

If only just half of what is lost or wasted was recovered, it could feed the world alone. Yet, around 800 million people still suffer from chronic hunger, as shown in the latest edition of the annual UN hunger report (SOFI 2015).

Moreover, food losses leave a huge environmental footprint as they represent a waste of resources used in production such as land, water and energy, increasing the green gas emissions in vain and contributing to climate change.

These data should be a wake-up call for raising public awareness on food waste. Civil society groups, non-governmental organisations and companies from the private sector are already addressing the issue, with several smart projects in course aiming to tackle food waste.

Early this year a charity has opened in Denmark the world’s first surplus food supermarket. Based in capital Copenhagen, Wefood sells products that are approaching their official expiry date or have damaged packaging, which would no longer be sold at conventional retail stores. The supermarket hopes to draw both environmentally conscious shoppers and low-income individuals with limited budgets, according to the project’s promoters.

A similar experience launched last week in Portugal, where the country’s national parliament has declared 2016 as the the year against food waste. Goodafter.com is an online store, aimed at the Portuguese and Spanish markets, that sells products soon to expire or that have passed their “best before” date with discounts up to 70%.

Around Europe some countries are beginning to take legal measures against food waste. France set the example when in last February the government banned supermarkets from throwing away and spoiling unsold food.

This was a common practice among retailers who often poured bleach over food to avoid dumpster divers. Instead, stores are now required to donate these products to charities and food banks. The law also forces large restaurants to provide take-away containers.

What started as a campaign launched by Courbevoie councillor, Arash Derambarsh, turned into a law passed unanimously by the French senate. Campaigners now hope to persuade the EU to adopt similar legislation across member states.

In the UK, a food waste bill, with similar provisions, was presented to parliament on September 2015 by the Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, but without the backing of government the bill did not pass.

Refood volunteer

Like retail stores, restaurants are responsible for tossing away significant amounts of perfectly good food, that could be used to feed many people from the communities in which they operate.

Hunter Halder, an American ex-patriot, living in Lisbon, Portugal, awakened to this sad reality while dinning with his daughter at a restaurant, and she kept asking him what would happen with all the food that was left. That night five years ago, Halder decided to found Refood, a charity which collects excess food from local restaurants and redistributes it to people in need who live in the very same neighbourhoods. 

This model, with over 50 centers only in Portugal, has been echoed by Asian NGO the Robin Hood Army. Founded in August 2014 by a group of six young Indians, the organization now counts on 3,500 Robins (volunteers) to serve half a million people in India and Pakistan.

However, much of the food produced globally every year never even makes it to the supermarkets, much less to restaurants. In fact, large quantities of food are lost at early stages of the supply chain, and discarded before reaching its final product or retail stage. This may occur due to problems in harvesting, storage, packing, transport, infrastructure or market and price mechanisms, as well as institutional and legal frameworks.

Fruit and vegetables have the highest rate of wastage, which in part is caused by the market’s quality standards that over-emphasize appearance. According to Portuguese startup Fruta Feia ("ugly fruit"), major distributors have a preference for fruit and vegetables that are “perfect” in terms of shape, colour and size. Therefore, tonnes of good quality food are thrown back to the land every year by farmers who are unable to sell it.

Fruta Feia's delivery boxes

So, back in 2013, they decided to create an alternative market to “ugly” fruits and vegetables, working closely with local farmers and delivering boxes of otherwise rejected products to the consumers. The idea has also inspired a similar project in California called Imperfect Produce, which launched in summer 2015.

Initiatives like these play an important role in raising awareness on the impact of food loss and waste. This problem not only has serious environmental and economical consequences, but it also represents a moral dilemma considering that all over the world 3.1 million children still die from hunger every year.

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