How France became a global leader in curbing food waste

France isn't an obvious frontrunner in food recovery, but new legislation has helped catapult the nation to the top of the 2017 Food Sustainability Index.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
A volunteer at the Banques Alimentaires (Food Bank) in l'Hay-les-Roses, France, pushes a trolley with food donated by a supermarket to charity, in 2015.

France is a culinary leader – both at the table and, more recently, in the trash can.

In February 2016, France became the first country in the world to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away unused food through unanimously passed legislation. Now, supermarkets of a certain size must donate unused food or face a fine. Other policies require schools to teach students about food sustainability, companies to report food waste statistics in environmental reports, and restaurants to make take-out bags available.

These laws “make it the norm to reduce waste,” says Marie Mourad, a PhD student in sociology at Sciences Po in Paris who has authored several reports on French food waste. “France is not the country that wastes the least food, but they have become the most proactive because they want to be the exemplary country in Europe.” 

France’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. The country earned top ranking in the 2017 Food Sustainability Index, a survey of 25 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas conducted by the Economist and Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN).

The people of France wasted 234 pounds of food per person annually, according to the BCFN report, which is drastically better than France’s international counterparts, compared to about 430 pounds per capita thrown away year in the United States.

Small scraps make big impact

Food waste, or unused, edible food, is a global issue. Each year, some 1.3 billion metric tons, or one-third of all the food produced, is thrown away, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Recovering just 25 percent of that wasted food could feed 870 million hungry people – effectively ending world hunger.

Not only does food waste fritter away valuable resources like water, arable land, and money, but it also fills up landfills, which emit methane. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the United States and China.

“Food waste is so urgent because where and how we produce food has the biggest impact on the planet of any human activity,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president of food and markets at the World Wildlife Fund.

“In the US, we don't have champions in government who are thinking much about food, nevertheless food waste,” says Mr. Clay. “That has separated us from France: they have people who took up this issue politically.”

French National Assembly member Guillaume Garot helped frame the legislation with his previous experience as the former junior minister for the food industry – a position that in and of itself proves France’s dedication to the issue, say experts.

However, France is not an obvious frontrunner in this field.

Over the past decade, Britain has demonstrated far more statistical success, says Craig Hanson, global director of food, forests, and water at the World Resources Institute, and Denmark has made news with new projects like ugly produce grocery stores. Comparatively, France’s law is new, and as the Guardian reported after it was passed, only 11 percent of France’s 7.1 million metric tons of wasted food comes from supermarkets.

But to Clay, Ms. Mourad, and other food recovery advocates, the law is important symbolically. Neither the United States, nor Britain or Denmark, have comparable government legislation.

“Making it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food is massive,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of the book “American Wasteland.” “That legislative step has impacted all levels of the French food chain.”

Before the 2016 law, French supermarkets typically donated 35,000 metric tons of food annually, roughly one-third of food banks’ total supply, Jacques Bailet, president of the food bank network Banques Alimentaires, told the Guardian in 2016. If supermarkets can increase their food bank donations by only 15 percent this could mean 10 million more meals for needy French each year.

This law improves not only the quantity of donated food, say experts, but also the quality. Food banks typically are supplied with canned goods, rather than nutritionally valuable foods like meat, vegetables, and fruit.

“The fight against food waste should become a major national cause, like road safety, that mobilises everybody,” said Mr. Garot in a press release. “That implies that every authority, at every level, plays its part.”

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