Annie Soyeux is a project manager for Food, Health and Sanitary Risks at the Centre for Studies and Outlook at the French Ministry of Agriculture (MAAPRAT in the French abbreviation). She has been working for many years on the issues of waste and food sustainability.
Aren’t authorities and public awareness on the subject of waste and food losses quite recent?
Western countries seem to have taken waste into account for about ten years whilst Southern countries have showed interest in agricultural losses since the 1970s. All countries must be mindful of their farming production methods in order to ensure their populations’ development and well being. For that purpose, they must look into consumption habits and concomitant issues on losses and waste. In Europe, the concern was raised with sanitary questions including the study on obesity, especially in Great Britain where obesity has increased significantly. The British authorities studied and measured food consumption to try and define what causes obesity.
What about France?
In France, the RESEDA, a network of professionals to promote the safety and quality of the food products of animal origin, conducted a research on industrial production losses in association with the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME in the French abbreviation) in 2003.
In 2007, the ADEME launched a vast study (MODECOM) to analyze dustbin composition. It also funded several studies on the subject, which were added on the public website of the National Federation for the Environment. Launched in September 2010, the French Ministry of Agriculture’s National Food Plan includes a chapter on waste (http://alimentation.gouv.fr/pna ). It has become a real challenge on the European scale. In 2011, the company Albal published a report after leading an investigation in different European countries. By request of the European Commission, a study was conducted in all member states as well. Besides, the European Parliament called for the Commission to look into the subject and declare 2013 “the year against waste”.
Can we really measure the impact of these losses on the environment?
The definition of loss varies depending on the countries and on the cultures. We make a distinction between organic industrial waste (loss in weight or volume or losses depending on whether the issue is inherent to the process or caused by a fault); inevitable waste (bones, egg shells etc.) and partially avoidable waste (fruit, vegetable and cheese rinds). In France, we consider the latter kind generates 89 million tons, that is 179kg (394 lbs) per person throughout the supply chain. A recent study from the ADEME shows that consumers and small shops, including restaurants, throw 20kg (44 lbs) away of products that are still edible and out of which 7kg (15.5 lbs) are still packaged products. However, there is still no international definition of what we call loss and its perimeter or “waste”, and no relevant standard method to assess waste.
The work group you joined n the French Packaging Council (CNE) published a report explaining the role of packaging in the conveyance of retail products in detail, from the production of a packaged product to its way in the consumer’s home. It seems that losses and waste in industrialized countries come mainly from consumer use. Various actors take part in this conveyance we described, so is there something they can do?
I found fascinating all the exchanges between our group and partners (manufacturers, providers, consumers etc.). We could all understand and appreciate better the constraints of each other. There is indeed a general awareness on the necessity of reducing waste, which has a real environmental and economic impact (valued at 430€ a year per inhabitant in France).
For decades, the packaging and consuming practices were notorious for leading to waste. Now, the planet’s finitude is at stake, we study the products life cycles as well as the environmental impact of the product compared to its packaging. Manufacturers are doing research and concentrating their efforts in order to limit losses on all stages of the food chain. So I found very interesting all the attempts to establish rates in terms of package returns or the notion of yoghurt’s “spoonability” – that is, the collection of the yoghurt with a spoon – for example. Packaging can really have a lead role for resource preservation and manufacturers are in a position to encourage good practices for prevention and use. In another set of ideas, in the developing countries, the three-layer packaging and its air tightness kills the larva that would grow otherwise, allowing to preserve beans or grains better.
But is there really room for manoeuvre for the agribusiness industries especially when considering they are bound by a set of very strict sanitary rules in terms of microbiological safety (e.g.: eat-by sell-by date)? In other words, how can we combine consumer concern for buying increasingly healthy products and the desire to reduce packages?
I believe we should, on the European scale, work for better labeling but also for better consumer understanding of the eat-by and sell-by date notions. Often, these indications are not very legible or not well understood. The notion of “optimum use” for example may well deserve an information campaign: it is not because the date of a product is expired that it is not edible or drinkable anymore. We may also change the formulation and use for example “best before” instead of “eat-by”). Recent cases of contaminations with food products should not scare consumers. It is especially true for agribusiness products that are increasingly watched and handled better. Manufacturers in the food and cosmetics industry are well aware of the fact that when the product is healthy and of a good quality, its shelf life will be longer. They are also working on the overhaul of some industrial processes in order to save matter, as detailed and recommended in the report.
What are the measures taken by the authorities in this perspective?
As part of the National Food Plan (PNA), the French authorities had studies carried out in order to apprehend better the obstacles to waste reduction; what is thrown away and by whom. The taxation of big producers on organic waste will be a driving force (see the report published by the National Committee for Waste (CND) 2001), just like the increase of the charge for clean water services was in the early 2000s. This will probably lead manufacturers to keep intensifying their efforts and especially process engineering manufacturers to enquire further on how to limit loss of matters in food products.
Doesn’t the manufacturers’ concern to offer “recyclable products” actually lead the consumer to easily throw any package away with some kind of good conscience?
No, I don’t think so because the consumer-citizen is always more encouraged to sort his waste. By way of illustration, the waste processing company SITA has implemented an ingenious system: when the consumer sorts out packages, SITA transfers a contribution to food banks, in proportion to the recovered amount of waste in tons. It is a win-win system, also for communities, hence encouraging recycling. This type of action is becoming frequent locally.
How can reallocation to social actors and an easier and more practical “donations” politic be planned?
Of course, we all have these ideas in mind but there are many juridical obstacles (eat-by date), in terms of professional reliability (Health Package) but mainly logistically (cold chain, truck, deliveries etc.). By initiative of the French Ministry of Agriculture and as part of the PNA (DGA1), a donation grant is being organized to facilitate contact making between professionals. “Unpackaging” factories are also set up so that unsold healthy food is used at least for animal feeding.
Generally speaking, what do you think about information campaigns or “educative” campaigns for consumers regarding product management or purchase planning etc.?
There are initiatives in this perspective especially within schools and middle schools where children are offered to do some gardening, vegetable cooking and composting with plate leftovers. Mentalities are changing, things are moving, that’s for sure and we can be pleased about this. Passing on simple messages such as “when you throw away half a loaf of bread, you also waste half a bathtub of water (used to make cereal grow and bake the bread)” or as “each year, you throw away about 500€ (per person) in the trash” etc., this might encourage people to think twice on the subject.
Analysis n° 5, March 2009, La lutte contre le gaspillage, une solution d’avenir ?(Fighting against waste, a solution for the future ?), Centre for Studies and Outlook, MAAPRAT http://agriculture.gouv.fr/analyse-no-5-mars-2009-la-lutte
The Food Sustainability for New Challenges (duALIne in the French abbreviation) report is available on the National Institute for Agronomy Research (INRA in the French abbreviation) website. Chapter 7 covers the issues of waste and food losses in Northern countries and in the diverse Southern countries: http://www.inra.fr/l_institut/prospective/rapport_dualine