Grocery stores in France will soon be banned from throwing away or destroying unsold food, under a bill passed unanimously by the French parliament last week.
Food waste costs countries around the world billions of dollars each year and is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but France’s action was spurred by another type of crisis. Mired in an economic slump, France has seen an growing number of people living off food scavenged from waste bins outside grocery stores, which has prompted an outcry from aid workers and activists.
“There’s an absolute urgency — charities are desperate for food. The most moving part of this law is that it opens us up to others who are suffering,” Assemblymember Yves Jégo told parliament.
Under the law, which will go into effect in July of next year, French supermarkets will have to give unsold food away to charities or donate it for use in animal feed or compost.
But while the law might help get food into the bellies of those who need it, in terms of overall waste, the step may be more symbolic than effective. In France, 7.1 million metric tons of food is wasted each year, but only 11 percent is thrown out by food retailers. The bulk of it, 67 percent, is thrown away by consumers, and 15 percent is tossed by restaurants, the Guardian reports.
Worldwide, between a third and a half of all the food produced is thrown away, according to a 2013 report. In developed nations, waste stems from over-aggressive sell-by dates, the tendency to throw out produce that isn’t aesthetically pleasing, large portion sizes, and low food prices.
The concern with food waste goes beyond the travesty of wasting food in a time when others are going hungry.
Wasting food has real impacts on the environment and economy. Agriculture is a big user of water, for example, so uneaten food means wasted water. In California, agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of water use.
Transportation costs, wages, storage, and other related efforts towards food production are also wasted when consumers and producers throw out perfectly good — if not perfect-looking — food. The U.K.-based Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP) found that globally, reducing wasted food could save $120 to $300 billion a year.
Discarded food is also a huge contributor to climate change. A 2013 United Nations study found that if wasted food were a country, it would be the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. When food waste decomposes, it produces methane — a greenhouse gas which, pound for pound, has 25 times more effect on climate change than carbon. Methane is the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States, where between 30 and 50 percent of all purchased food goes straight into the trash.
“Reducing food waste is good for the economy and good for the climate,” said Helen Mountford, Global Program Director for the New Climate Economy, said in a statement earlier this year.
France may not be the last country to ban grocery stores from throwing away unsold food. Arash Derambarsh, the local politician who prompted the law with a petition that garnered more than 200,000 signatures, is planning to take the issue to the United Nations discussions, including the COP21 environment conference in Paris in December. He’s joined in his campaign by ONE, U2 singer Bono’s social action group.