What the French can teach us about dealing with food waste

  • Food News
  • Thursday, 27 Dec 2018

Filepic of Penang residents collecting food from a food bank.

Also read: Love Food Hate Waste: Closer to feeding all Malaysians

As the secretariat of MYSaveFood Network, an initiative headed by the Agriculture Minister represented by the Malaysian Agricultural Research & Development Institute (Mardi), we had the opportunity to travel to France to learn from the country to first have a food waste law, initiated by its Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Back in 2012, the Minister for Agrobusiness, Guillaume Garot was the man paving the road to the French food waste law. The quest to reduce food waste requires commitment from multiple key players. The first step taken was to develop a national pact. The pact was signed in 2013 by 34 signatories consisting of economic actors, NGOs and local communities.

From then on, commitment of action such as education, good practices and political support from the signatories saw the French national law against food waste come into effect in February 2016 and France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, donating them instead to charities and food banks.

The law was enacted after grassroots campaigns in France by consumers and anti-poverty campaigners opposed to food waste. The law was targeted at retailers – who were spoiling food on purpose to prevent the poor from feeding off their dumps – and set a hierarchy of preferable action to tackle food waste for businesses and institutions that generate large quantities of food and organic waste. Destruction of food was forbidden for all retailers. Those with more than 400sq m (4,305sq ft) of retail space must invite a partner to allow food donations to be made.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail recently announced the possibility of developing a food waste law in Malaysia. If this comes to pass, Malaysia will be the first country in Asia to enforce a food waste law, a move welcomed by independent food banks in the country working to recover food and avert hunger and an environmental crisis.

In a country where things don’t get taken seriously until people are compelled by law, this is a necessary step to cut through the apathy and indifference. The question is whether we follow France and target only retailers when other food industry players are equally wasteful? For this, we can look at the enabling factors in France for comparison.

There are three main factors for France’s success in introducing the food waste law. Strong political support, the culture of food donations being given tax relief, and a structured voluntary system to mobilise donations with more than 70,000 volunteers.

In Malaysia we have a less supportive system. We have no tax relief for food donations and fewer NGOs and food banks to mobilise these donations. There are only a handful of NGOs and food banks in Malaysia although the recent move by the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry to establish Food Bank Malaysia may help in this aspect. Looking at the odds, there is a need to look further on the suitability to follow France as a model for a Food Waste Act.

It took three years for France to establish its food waste law. Perhaps Malaysia should not rush into having a law but first get support from key stakeholders. Data on the distribution of food wastage across the supply chain in Malaysia is still lacking and continuous discussion with multiple government ministries and key players is important.

The statement of intent by the DPM against food waste is an important step forward for Malaysia. Political will and social conscience – after all it is a country that takes its food seriously – are what sets France apart in the war against waste and what helped it to earn top ranking in the 2017 Food Sustainability Index, a survey by The Economist and Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation.

In October this year, France passed sweeping reform of its agriculture and food policy to address fair incomes, animal welfare, and environmental impact, among others. Its food waste law has been extended to institutional catering, and restaurants are now required to provide doggy bags for unfinished food.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the French food waste law is how France made the fight against food waste a national agenda and now every French citizen feels the responsibility to take action. France takes it one step further by planning to reduce food waste by 50% by 2025; Malaysia’s commitment to sustainable development goals under the United Nations is to reduce food waste by half by 2030.

We are a nation that is proud of our rich gastronomic heritage so it follows that we hate to waste food. With political will, we can bring down the 3,000 tonnes of edible food that we currently throw away daily – an amount that can feed 2.2 million people three meals a day.

Are we ready as a nation to step up efforts against food waste? I truly believe no Malaysian likes to waste food, so the answer has to be a resounding “Yes”.

Dr Ainu Husna MS Suhaimi is the acting director of Mardi’s corporate communication and quality centre.

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