European Commission. Science for Environment Policy. 26/09/2019
Food waste: a reduction of up to 50% could reduce EU household expenditure and environmental impact
As the global population increases, it is increasingly urgent that policymakers and other actors facilitate feasible, sustainable solutions to the issue of food waste. This study explored the market effects of reducing household food waste within the EU. The researchers found that reductions of up to 50% by 2030 would lead to household cost savings, a shrinking agri-food sector, a mild negative macroeconomic impact and desirable reductions in environmental pressures, such as greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water abstraction.
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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO; UN), food waste costs a global annual average of US$2.6 trillion (€2.34 trillion) (3.3% of global GDP). Halving food waste by 2030 is an objective of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to create a sustainable future for communities and ecosystems worldwide.
Estimates of per-capita household food waste vary greatly in EU studies, but range up to nearly 92 kilograms1 per year. The EU is taking steps to reduce this via its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP)2 , which included food waste as one of its priority areas. Significant progress has been achieved in this area in the last years, for example by the revised waste legislation3 and the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste4:
- The revised waste legislation, adopted in 2018, calls on EU countries to take action to reduce food waste at each stage of the food supply chain, monitor food-waste levels and report back regarding progress made.
- Since 2016, the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste has encouraged stakeholders and experts to work together to find practical solutions for reducing and monitoring food waste.
However, it remains a priority to better align EU policy with food practices and supply chains in a circular economy, and to improve regulatory and legal frameworks in order to facilitate measures such as better food handling and widespread donation networks.
This study examined the market impacts of reducing EU household food waste, using a multi-regional model and data to simulate how the EU economy would react to various economic, biophysical and policy drivers up to 2030.
The researchers selected recent estimates of physical food waste from the European Commission, which split EU household food waste by commodity: vegetables (26%), fruits (19%), meat (19%), sugar, cereals, and fish (12% each) and dairy (8%). The study uses satellite data to characterise social, biophysical and environmental indicators and, unlike previous analyses, includes factors involved with agricultural food supply that would be affected by increasing compliance costs — for example, increased spending to meet new legal requirements, such as implementing improved food-labelling schemes.
The model explored four food-waste-reduction scenarios, accounting for two fundamental market drivers: demand (food-waste reductions of 25 and 50%); and supply (the hypothesised per-unit compliance costs needed to trigger behavioural changes in EU food consumption: 1% and 5% of the relevant sales-flow values). Thus the four scenarios were:
- 25% food-waste reduction, 1% compliance costs
- 25% food-waste reduction, 5% compliance costs
- 50% food-waste reduction, 1% compliance costs
- 50% food-waste reduction, 5% compliance costs
Consistent with previous studies, the researchers find that reducing household waste can bring a minor macroeconomic impact, while having positive effects on environmental indicators such as land usage, greenhouse gas emissions and water abstraction.
The macroeconomic impact ranged from -0.1 to -0.5% (as a percentage of GDP change) across the scenarios, which the researchers attribute to the highly localised agri-food markets seen in the EU. Three of the scenarios saw annual household savings, with a maximum of 93 Euros (highest food-waste reduction, lowest compliance cost) and a minimum (an increase) of -23 Euros (lowest food-waste reduction, highest compliance cost). The effect on food prices remains ambiguous, given the opposing forces of supply and demand driven by rising per-unit production costs and reductions in household waste, respectively.
Levels of agri-food production decreased in all scenarios, with production contracting to meet reduced demand. Horticulture and meat saw the largest decreases, with dairy and fish also showing notable declines. This is accompanied by agri-food job losses of up to 7%.
Regarding sustainability, the study found food-waste reductions to cause agricultural landuse savings of up to 9 554 kilometres squared, or 0.5% of EU agricultural land. The largest savings come from sectors that contribute more to household waste, such as vegetables, fruits and meat. Greenhouse gas reductions ranged from 7 (-1.6%) to 16 (-3.5%) million tonnes, largely driven by agriculture. For water abstraction, food-waste reductions drove water savings of between -121 million cubic metres (lowest food-waste reductions and compliance costs) and -316 million cubic metres (highest reductions and compliance costs) — between 0.2% to 0.6% of the baseline and largely driven by horticulture.
These positive environmental effects would have a beneficial impact on ecosystem services, say the researchers, demonstrating the importance of policy that pushes towards an economy in which waste and resource use is minimised (a circular economy). The study also notes that food waste could offer an additional resource for economic activity (e.g. as a source of biomass); highlights the importance of improved food packaging, given that up to 25% of household food waste is thought to be related to packaging issues (e.g. widespread misunderstanding of ‘best before’ dates); and calls for better collection of food-waste data and the introduction of awareness campaigns to positively influence consumer attitudes.