No more food waste by French supermarkets? Not quite.
No more food waste by French supermarkets? Not quite.
*****Please note: The amdendment discussed in this post was struck down on procedural grounds, but will be brought up again soon. Stay tuned for an update.******
France’s National Assembly recently approved an amendment to its energy transition law forcing supermarkets to strive to eliminate back of store waste. This is a good first step, but it leaves much to be desired.
Although it is crucial to reduce waste of edible food in stores, most food waste happens further up the supermarket supply chains. Moreover, the amendment may lead to higher levels of composting and anaerobic digestion of food waste, whereas what is really needed is diversion of food waste towards charitable redistribution and livestock feed.
The amendment takes a multi-pronged approach to reducing food waste from supermarkets.
The headline news is retailers must strive to prevent waste by donating surplus food, sending it to animal feed processors, or using it for composting and anaerobic digestion. Also, markets that are 400 square metres or more must formally link with a food redistribution charity to facilitate food donations, or face penalties including fines of up to €75,000 (£53,000) or two years in jail.
Other important components of the law:
* Suppliers will be able to donate products that are returned to them, instead of needing to destroy those products.
* There are provisions to include education about food waste in school curricula.
* Supermarkets are prohibited from poisoning food that they do throw away, a practice that has attracted widespread attention. “It’s scandalous to see bleach being poured into supermarket dustbins along with edible foods,” said Guillame Garot, who co-wrote the amendment and has worked with Feedback over the past three years.
This amendment only begins to address supermarkets’ role in creating food waste.
Through years of research and campaigning on food waste and via our Gleaning Network UK campaign, which organises groups of volunteers to save food from going to waste on farms and donates it to food redistribution charities, we have witnessed first-hand supermarket policies that drive up farm-level food waste. Cosmetic standards imposed by retailers lead to fruit and vegetables of the “wrong” size and shape being wasted in huge quantities despite increasing evidence that consumers would buy misshapen fruit and veg. Farmers also complain about having to systematically overproduce to ensure they are not penalised for not meeting supermarket orders. And, supermarkets change their orders at the last minute, leaving waste on their suppliers’ hands.
The same asymmetric relationship between supermarkets and farmers also causes food waste on farms in other countries. Earlier this year, Feedback did grassroots research in Kenya and uncovered how the policies of European supermarkets and their direct suppliers cause Kenyan smallholders to waste around 40% of what they grow for European markets – even in a country with millions of hungry people.
Supermarkets drive waste in the consumption stage of the food supply chain, too. Stores create the image of cornucopian abundance that they believe consumers need to see. A hard-wired human response to glut is to take more: this is the marketing technique that results in us buying far more food than we’re going to eat, week after week.
This amendment does not address the outsize role supermarkets play in driving food waste across all stages of the food supply chain.
This amendment gives supermarkets too much leeway on how to divert their waste
In addition to only beginning to address supermarkets’ role in creating food waste across the food supply chain, this amendment allows supermarkets to consider composting and anaerobic digestion of food waste to count towards “zero food waste.” This is problematic because if food is safe and edible for people to eat, it is more calorically, environmentally, and economically efficient to use it for those purposes than to harvest it for energy and compost. Even if it is not fit for human consumption, it can still be a great source of calories for livestock. Tristram Stuart, Feedback’s founder, calculates that it’s up to 500 times better for the environment, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions diverted, to divert food waste to pigs rather than sending it to AD. Anaerobic digestion is better than landfill, but “better than landfill” is far from the best we can do.
The fact that this amendment mandates that supermarkets formally partner with food redistribution charities goes a way towards encouraging using surplus food to feed people in need. However, as currently written, the amendment does not mandate that surplus food be used in this way whenever possible.
A corollary to this point is that the law mandates that supermarkets “strive” to eliminate food waste – it does not “ban” supermarket food waste, as some media have erroneously reported.
The amendment is a victory, but we must not rest on our laurels. This amendment is a great start, and we are celebrating. However, it is only a start. France still must address its supermarkets’ relationship with farmers, other suppliers, and consumers. And supermarkets must be encouraged not to react to this law by going all-in for anaerobic digestion; instead, they must make a concerted effort to use surplus food to feed those who need it, where possible, and feed livestock as a backup option.
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