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Not enough to feed everyone – but enough to throw lots away

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 13, 2012

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It is time the EU took action to prevent the current level of food waste, says Julie Girling.

Around the world the price of food is going up and there are growing concerns that in the years to come there won't be enough to feed everyone.

Against such a background it is scarcely believable that 30% of all the food produced is never consumed.

In the European Union this figure is closer to 50% – and is growing rapidly. It is a problem that we need to deal with, yet policymakers often seem intent on making the problem worse, not better.

The contributing factors vary around the world.

In developing countries most food waste happens in the production stage. Primitive agricultural methods mean that crops can easily be ravaged by disease, drought or flooding and additionally a significant amount of food can be lost or damaged during harvest. The lack of storage and refrigeration facilities, coupled with poor infrastructure, means that food can go off long before it reaches market.

However, in stark contrast to the Western world, once food gets to the consumer in developing countries, little of it is wasted.

In the West, production and harvesting techniques are normally much more efficient and it is consumers, retailers and processors who waste the most food.

The relative abundance of food means that we can be picky about what we eat. Food which is not perfect often gets discarded. Our lawmakers usually make this even more of a problem. Until recently the EU banned so-called "wonky fruit" such as bananas that bent too much or apples that were too knobbly. The end result was that many tonnes of perfectly edible fruit were thrown away, for the crime of simply not conforming to a subjective view of what food should look like.

The European Commission came to its senses in 2008 and removed the ban – yet many retailers continue to enforce their private rules on appearance, and food that doesn't look perfect is rarely seen on our supermarket shelves.

In the forthcoming Common Agricultural Policy reform, MEPs mainly from Southern European countries are pushing to reintroduce marketing standards governing the shape and size of our food, in a challenge to the official 2008 stance on "wonky fruit".

This is a luxury that we can ill afford. Food can be perfectly good and wholesome, even if it bends too much or has too many knobbly bits on it. We have to change our mindset and put the benefits of reduced waste above those of cosmetic perfection.

Many EU countries go a step further by banning the sale of food if it is reduced to below the cost of production. As a result, food cannot be discounted towards the end of the day and sold off at bargain prices, instead it must simply be thrown away.

These same countries have made attempts to enforce similar rules throughout the whole EU in an attempt to artificially keep the price of food high to protect farmers.

The Common Fisheries Policy encourages possibly the greatest example of EU food waste, with millions of tonnes of fish being thrown back into the ocean because they are either out of quota or not considered marketable.

While these policies are short-sighted, policymakers are not solely to blame. Supermarkets rarely sell products in single servings and people are often unaware of how to store, cook and dispose of food in the best way to reduce waste.

In addition, food is often discarded because of confusion over the true meaning of the different labels showing the "sell-by", "best-before" and "use-by" dates.

A huge amount of food is thrown away because it is past its "sell-by" or "best-before" date, but is still perfectly edible. In total around 42% of all food waste in the EU happens in the home. Better labelling, which clearly states by when food should be eaten, along with initiatives from retailers to ensure that food close to its expiry date is sold off cheaply, a greater variety of product sizes, and smarter packaging that better conserves food, are all possible and can go a long way to addressing the problem.

We are lucky to live in a time and a place where our farms can produce abundant, high-quality food and we can import an intoxicating variety of products from anywhere in the world. As a result we have generally ignored the fact that we waste a lot of it.

Now that food is becoming more expensive and we are increasingly concerned about both the environmental impacts of fishing and farming and our ability to feed ourselves in the future, it is surely the time to take action.

We not only need new, innovative and market-led approaches to the problem, but we shall also need a more complete understanding of how to process, market, store, cook and consume food.

Julie Girling is a Conservative member for South West England at the European Parliament, and a member of its Agriculture and Rural Development, Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and Fisheries committees

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