Wasting food

Some 7% of the food we buy ends up in the bin. Each person in Catalonia throws away some 35 kilos of food every year

'Work is going on to find out how much produce does not end up in households'

Managing 2,000 meals a day is not easy. It is something the Germans Triats i Pujol hospital in Badalona knows well. In 2010, all areas of the hospital involved in managing patients' food began working together to avoid the waste of more than 300 meals a month. Trays that before were left untouched no longer end up in the bin. The centralisation of information, the chance to choose from three different options and specific staff training means that the hospital no longer has to throw away 910 kilos of food every year, as well as saving money.

This is one initiative to avoid food waste, but it is not the only one in Catalonia. The wholesale market Mercabarna, for example, has a project to minimise the amount of food wasted, while the Caprabo supermarket chain has for the past five years donated edible food that can no longer be sold to local social organisations. In fact, there are food saving projects underway all over the country, working to focus attention on the issue of food waste. “It is a world in full swing,” says Paco Muñoz, from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona's environment department and vice president of the Plataforma Aprofitem els Aliments. Muñoz became interested in food waste in 2008 as a result of concerns about waste management. “I noticed that a significant part of our waste, almost 40%, is made up of organic material. I looked at my own bin and found bread crusts, cheese that had gone hard in the fridge, leftovers from cooking more than necessary... and I saw there was a real opportunity to drastically reduce the volume of waste,” he says. From then on he began to do research at work and decided to examine the rubbish bags from cafés on the UAB campus. “I found all sorts: chips, macaroni, steaks... I realised we had a real problem and with the support of the Catalan government we decided to begin an investigation to find out what the situation really was,” he adds.

The result was the study, Diagnosi del malbaratament alimentari a Catalunya (Diagnosis of food waste in Catalonia), which threw up such figures as, on average, each person throws away 40 kilos of edible food every year, worth 112 euros. The figure is particulary striking when 20% of the population of Catalonia is at risk of food insecurity.

The end of the chain

The food that finds its way into refuse lorries comes from households, restaurants and businesses, and so does not include food thrown away by industry. Nor does it include the food left in fields that may be left unharvested due to weather damage or because it does not fulfill aesthetic standards. “Or it could be because the price has fallen and it is no longer worth the cost of harvesting,” says Muñoz. “All of this,” he adds “still needs to be calculated, but work is going on with the cooperation of industry, food producers and the fishing sector, to find out exactly how much produce does not end up finding its way into households.”

Knowing the figures for food waste at its origin is vital, and while there are still no definitive figures for Catalonia, estimates suggest that if food waste figures for the end of the production chain amount to 262,000 tonnes a year, for the whole chain from field or sea to house the figure could be 700,000 tonnes.


“Today there is overproduction of food. This excess lowers prices and affects food producers while also causing a large amount of waste that has a great impact on the environment and people. It might seem that excessive food production would prevent hunger, but there is a paradox, because there are still 800 million people in the world who do not have enough to eat. This shows that the system does not work,” points out Muñoz.

The chef Ada Parellada, who is also involved in the fight against food waste, shares the idea that a change of mentality is needed, although she admits the solutions are complex. “The first thing that must be done is to recognise the problem and make it visible. If you talk to any part of the food production chain, no one admits that food is thrown away. We think we do not waste food at home, but it is not true. We do not give food its true value,” she says.

A globalised economy

In a global economy the consumer is used to having a large amount of food available, with products from all over the world at any time of the year. That means there could be thousands of kilometres between the place it is produced and where it is consumed. “There are very complex chains of operators speculating in food and for whom it is often more profitable for it to be thrown away than reach people's plates,” says Muñoz.

Meanwhile, Parellada gives the example of tomatoes: “We, a country that produces tomatoes, import large quantities of tomatoes from Morocco. We import products that are cheaper because abroad the wages are derisory. While there is food for everyone, it is at the cost of impoverishing rural communities and upsetting the environmental and social balance.”

The solution is complex, but once the first step of becoming aware has been taken there are simple measures that can help. The first is to buy local produce, “because the chains are shorter and so it is less likely that the product will have been subject to speculation,” advises Muñoz. For this expert, it is also best to eat produce in season that, apart from being local, tends to last longer. “And to avoid food waste at home, we have to relearn the techniques of our mothers and grandmothers to make the most of our food. There are many recipes, many tricks to give leftovers a second life.” There are even online platforms to share leftover food and mobile apps that help, for example, to buy excess food from restaurants.

Reevaluating food

“We throw away food because it is cheap. We have devalued food,” says Parellada, giving the example of bread, a foodstuff that often ends up in the rubbish. However, in the past bread was not thrown away and leftover bread would be made into croutons and other ingredients that were often more highly valued than the original bread. “I am not saying we have to go back to those times, but if we knew better about how bread is made, we would no doubt give it more value,” says the chef.

“People do not waste food when it is expensive and there is not much of it,” says Parellada. “No one wastes caviar or wild mushrooms. The mushrooms you have picked have cost you no money, but they have an added value, that you had a good time hunting them. As they are scarce, you value them more. Yet the mushrooms we buy in the supermarket are thrown away without a thought.”

Root of the problem

So if the only value people give to food is economic, should the price of food go up to discourage waste? “It is not politically incorrect,” says Parellada, “and it is a great achievement that there is enough food for everyone, but the truth is that cheap food encourages waste. We are caught in a loop we cannot escape; we have to go to the root of the problem, which is our current system of consumption and the need to have what we want.”

The chef is just one of many critics who believe the redistribution of excess food to social organisations is just a way of papering over the problem. “It is not about giving leftovers to the poor, this is not the solution. Obviously people in need should have help and support, but we shouldn't let redistribution of food become a way to salve our consciences. The real solution is reduction; we should not produce what we do not need,” she insists. She is also in favour of putting a price on food waste. According to Parellada, farmers should be able to sell the misshapen courgettes that are left unharvested because they are ugly-looking, or supermarkets should sell products close to their sell-by date at a reduced price. “Only if there is an economic return will businesses take it seriously,” she says.

Legislation also has a role to in fighting food waste. There is currently a proposed food waste bill going through parliament, put forward by the socialists, which aims to raise public awareness of food waste as a social, economic, and environmental problem.

The initiative has the support of waste management organisations, but the Plataforma d'Aprofitament dels Aliments has identified points in the bill that either ignore or do not take into account issues it considers important. “There has to be a law that covers everything from the field to the table, and not a law like the one in France that focuses on punishing supermarkets for generating food waste,” says Muñoz, who insists action is needed at every level. For example, the proposed Catalan law foresees that products categorised as food waste cannot be used to make a profit for the organisation that receives them. “That might seem reasonable, but from the economic point of view it makes no sense,” says Muñoz. This, he insists, will benefit companies that behave inefficiently and prevent companies that act efficiently from making profits out of this unwanted resource. Yet, Muñoz is optimistic and believes the law can be improved. “All points of view should be considered, not only that of donations, but also a system of fines for companies and areas whose behaviour produces food waste,”. It cannot just be a declaration of good intentions,” he concludes.

More than a waste of money

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, some 33% of the food produced in the world is wasted, while 800 million people do not have enough to eat. What's more, food waste harms the environment, contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases and wasting water resources. “The pressure on ecosystems is very high. We don't know what species we are annhilating,” says Paco Muñoz. And all of this is happening while a third of the world's population is overweight.

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