Food Waste Risks Being Tossed Aside in Germany’s Coalition Talks

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By Jabeen Bhatti

Plans to curtail the waste of 18 million tons of food annually in Germany—and stem the greenhouse gas emissions connected to the production and transfer of such waste—are falling by the wayside during talks on a preliminary coalition agreement for the country’s new government.

The preliminary agreement is slated for release this week, yet the parties involved haven’t reached consensus on several hot-button environmental issues, such as European agriculture policy, and haven’t addressed the issue of food waste, according to environmentalists and a leaked outline of the proposed coalition’s agricultural policy stances obtained by Bloomberg Environment.

With no concrete solutions in sight, the new German government formed after September’s elections is likely to stay its course of merely informing the public about wasteful habits.

That approach could hinder the country’s ability to meet its ambitious international and domestic climate and sustainability goals, Valentin Thurn, co-founder of Germany’s Foodsharing.de, a nationwide network of foodsharers, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The current proposals have no impact,” Thurn said. “The government is merely sticking its finger in a bleeding wound.”

Elections in late September failed to grant Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, a majority. Since then, the party has been negotiating with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Green Party to create a governing coalition.

A Global Issue

Every year across the globe, 1.3 billion tons of food, or about one-third of global production, is wasted due to overproduction, poor transportation methods, underselling by retailers, and overbuying by consumers, according to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Taking into account the resources needed to grow crops and raise livestock, that amounts to more than 3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year connected to global food waste, according to Germany’s Federal Environment Agency. Food waste would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the U.S, and China if the sector was its own country, according to the agency.

In Germany, the production and transportation of food waste accounts for some 48 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, or about 4 percent of total emissions, according to a 2015 report by the World Wildlife Foundation.

Meanwhile, Germany is expected to fail to meet its first round of environmental benchmarks in 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent as compared to 1990 levels, according to a September study from Agora Energiewende, an environmental think-tank based in Berlin.

Comprehensive legislation to better inform consumers and prevent waste across the supply chain could help Germany play catch up, Katrin Wenz, an agricultural policy researcher with Friends of the Earth Germany, a Berlin-based environmental policy organization, told Bloomberg Environment.

“Ten percent of global emissions could be spared if we just didn’t waste food anymore,” she said. “It’s incredibly important to keep our focus on this issue.”

Misplaced Focus

But while the German government has taken steps to reduce food waste, its initiatives aren’t addressing the full scope of the issue, environmentalists told Bloomberg Environment.

In 2012, the German government created a national education campaign and began investing in private initiatives that curb food waste. Though studies differ on the matter, end consumers are responsible for about 39 percent of food waste in Germany, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

The government’s campaign is called “Too Good for the Bin!” It distributes educational materials at schools and other public spaces with the goal of helping consumers develop better shopping habits.

“In the last few years, this has raised public awareness and enabled a greater appreciation of food through targeted information campaigns,” a spokesperson from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

But environmentalist Wenz is “skeptical” of the success of the government’s campaign; the campaign doesn’t address other causes of food waste outside of consumer behavior that occur higher up in the supply chain, she said.

“Neither the retail nor the agricultural sectors are in focus,” she said. “Many products ready for market are still being wasted if they don’t have the right color or form, or if there’s overproduction.”

The Federal Association of the German Retail Grocery Trade, however, contests claims about the industry not being focused on the issue.

“Preventing food waste at the commercial level is a matter of making predictions and adjusting to demand-driven commodity planning,” a spokesperson for the association told Bloomberg Environment in an email. “Retail companies continuously develop their merchandise management systems with great effort. Measures for this include the use of forecasting systems, the use of sales data, shorter order rhythms, smaller order quantities and smaller safety stocks.”

Missing Goals

The coalition negotiators’ failure to address the issue means it’s likely that Germany also won’t meet the United Nation’s 2015 Sustainability Goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Although Germany agreed to the goals, the U.N. guidelines are non-binding.

Almost 60 percent of all avoidable food waste occurs higher up in the supply chain before reaching the end consumer, according to the World Wildlife Foundation’s 2015 report.

Foodsharing.de’s Thurn views a paradigm shift in these sectors as crucial for catalyzing long-term sustainability.

“Global trade sets the standards and is responsible for everything that consumers throw away—the trade sector knows exactly what makes us always leave the store with too much,” said Thurn, referring to marketing strategies that prey on consumer expectations for fresh and convenient food, and rely on optics as a selling point, rather than a product’s sustainability.

Call To Action

In hopes of fostering a better understanding of how all levels of the supply chain contribute to Germany’s food waste problems, the upper house of the German Parliament, the Bundesrat, passed a resolution March 31 calling on the federal government to overhaul its food waste program.

The resolution calls for the establishment of a nationwide research network to provide the government with relevant scientific findings to develop new sustainability strategies, although no concrete proposals are mentioned.

The Bundesrat’s resolution envisions a “comprehensive take” on creating measures to combat food waste that could even consider issues within niche sectors, such as transportation and food storage, said Wenz.

In its June 21 response to the Bundesrat’s call to action, the Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture said it was developing research strategies to better address the problem, but failed to name new, comprehensive measures that would satisfy the upper house’s resolution.

Private Initiatives

In the meantime, private initiatives, such as Thurn’s Foodsharing.de, an expansive, nationwide, online network connecting over 25,000 private citizens and almost 3,000 companies that work together to pass along unsold, but otherwise perfectly good, food to food banks and other redistribution centers, are picking up the slack.

Thurn classifies Foodsharing.de as a derivative of the “ugly food movement,” which resells and redistributes food from grocery stores that lack the ideal optics consumers have grown accustomed to.

Despite the movement’s “explosive” growth since its inception in 2012, Foodsharing.de remains unique in Germany, said Thurn. Although myriad initiatives deal with the problem on the local level, there aren’t any other nationwide programs that deal with food waste on the ground.

That only underscores the need for new, comprehensive legislation to address the issue, Thurn added, especially considering the consequences for Germany’s adherence to national and international climate goals.

“The reasoning is clear: We as a society need to be interested in the topic because the consequences of food waste concern us all, especially as it influences global warming,” Thurn said.

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