Yesterday, I went to a talk about food waste by the author of the book “Die Essensvernichter” (the food destroyers) and co-producer of the movie “Taste the Waste” (of which the above excerpt stems from), Stefan Kreutzberger. While he as a journalist, maybe naturally, speaks about the topic in a pretty simplified and black-and-white manner – which put me off a bit, since coming from an academic background I always feel it’s more complicated than simple finger-pointing -, his work is crucial in illuminating the senseless waste in our food system. He also cofounded the online platform foodsharing.de, which I already wrote about here.
I already covered the topic of food waste pretty extensively, from the waste originating in production and post-harvest, up to supermarkets and consumers, but maybe you haven’t read those posts yet if you only just discovered the blog. It might be worthwhile to go back and check them out!
In addition, these are a couple of points that stood out for me from the lecture yesterday:
- In a lot of countries, food waste has only just started to become a scientifically researched issue, and thus one should be critical of statistics. In Germany, a first study commissioned by the Ministry for Agriculture made the consumer responsible for 61% of all food waste, but they failed to take into account the agricultural sector whatsoever, and relied on industry statistics of food waste in the retail sector – which might not be the most reliable data ever. If you look into their data, their maximum waste amount from the industry level is twice as high as their median, the number they finally used. Thus, more research is definitely needed to reliably zero in on the problem.
- In addition, I was surprised to hear that in Germany at least, the definition of “food” is “items produced for human consumption and harvested.” That is, if a farmer grows for instance salad, but prices drop in the market so much that he doesn’t even end up harvesting it and instead ploughs it under, that activity is not counted in as ‘food waste’ per definition, though it equally squandered resources.
- I also found it interesting when Mr. Kreutzberger talked about consumer behavior. According to him, 70% of purchasing decisions are made in the store itself (and thus most probably influenced by advertizement etc.) Also, a psychologist he interviewed talked about a phenomenon that was called “Produktflimmern” in German (the English equivalent would maybe be “product twinkle”) which occurs when the consumer in the store is so overwhelmed by the choice that he unintentionally overpurchases, just to be on the safe side. According to Kreutzberger, we are not buying things anymore that we want right now, but we are buying those things we might want in the future at any given time. Thus, we overpurchase to keep our options open, and then the expiration date absolves us from actually following through with those decisions, we can clean the fridge (and our emotional slate) and start anew in the wonderland of consumption decisions.
- One surprising factoid (though he didn’t cite hard evidence 😉 was that discounters in Germany tend to waste less than high-end grocery stores. This was explained by the fact that discounters distinguish themselves by the price, so that consumers are content with a limited product range and with the fact that some products run out for a while before they are restocked. In comparison, high-end grocery stores brand themselves with the image of high quality, high variety and choice, and never-ending supplies, and thus are more prone to overstock and count waste into their stocking decisions.
- This was a final point that was made clear – though food is ridiculously cheap nowadays compared to prior times (and this is especially the case in Germany), consumers pay for the food waste at a retail level in the prices of the goods that they actually buy. Obviously, retailers try to maximize their bottom line and couldn’t keep making losses on the goods they throw out; thus, these losses are generally distributed across well-selling items. An example Mr. Kreutzberger mentioned was of Chinese starfruit in a high-end grocery store, which are very seldomly purchased – the sales rep talked of a 90% loss rate. However, the supermarket keeps stocking them to distinguish itself from others by the large variety and the option it gives consumers of buying starfruit if they ever wanted to. Thus, they must distribute the lost value across much-sold fruit such as apples, oranges or bananas in order to break even, and the consumer ends up paying for the food waste too.
Bonus: You can watch the whole documentary “Food Waste” here (it’s in German, French and English), though I couldn’t find a version with English subtitles (a lot of it is pretty intuitive, though).