Citizens' ideas against food waste

13. February 2023
European Commission

On 12 February 2023, a randomly selected EU Citizens' Panel adopted 23 recommendations to reduce food waste in the European Union. The 150 participants had developed their proposals together over three weekends.

Food waste means that high losses already occur in the production of food. In private households, edible food is thrown into the waste bins in addition to inedible parts. In addition, there are further losses along the food supply chain.

Waste higher than imports

According to a study published in September 2022 by the environmental organisation Feedback EU, the EU wastes more food than it imports. According to the study, in 2021 the EU imported almost 138 million tonnes of agricultural products worth €150 billion. At the same time, the authors of the study "No Time to Waste" estimate that 153.5 million tonnes of food are not used to feed the population in the EU every year.

The amount of wheat thrown away in the EU alone is equivalent to about half of Ukraine's wheat exports and a quarter of the EU's other cereal exports. The report estimates about 90 million tonnes of food waste in food production - three times more than household waste.

Costs of 143 billion euros annually

According to the study, waste is greater in high-income countries than in lower-income countries. However, most of the waste is probably not even recorded, because food that is not harvested, not used or not sold on farms is usually not taken into account.

Food waste is estimated to cost businesses and households in the EU €143 billion a year. It accounts for at least six per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. An estimated 20 per cent of the food produced in the EU does not end up in the stomachs of EU citizens. By halving food waste in the EU by 2030, 4.7 million hectares of agricultural land could be put to other uses.

Alliance calls for binding targets

Against the backdrop of these figures, an international alliance of 43 organisations from 20 EU countries has published a joint statement calling on the EU to introduce legally binding targets for Member States to reduce food waste in the EU from farm to fork by 50 per cent by 2030.

Signatories include Feedback EU, the European Environmental Bureau and Zero Waste Europe, food waste companies Too Good to Go and OLIO, and members of the EU Platform on Food Loss and Waste, the EU's official advisory body on food waste.

EU Commission aims to halve waste

The European Commission has committed to halving food waste by 2030. Already in October 2021 the Commission started a public consultation process on a legislative proposal. The consultation, which was directed to stakeholders in the food supply chain but also open to citizens, was closed in August 2022 and resulted in a summary report. Respondents were mostly EU citizens (35%), company/business organizations (22%), and business associations (20%).

The respondents in the Commission’s consultation (74%) agreed or strongly agreed with the setting of legally binding food waste reduction targets through measures such as ‘improving efficiency along the food supply chain’, ‘education and training’, ‘facilitating donation of surplus food’ and ‘using surplus food and by-products’.

Recommendations of the Citizens' Panel

The EU Citizens' Panel on Food Waste has now proposed, among other things, the introduction of a legal framework for the collection and reporting of food waste. Awareness-raising campaigns should make clear the difference between best-before and use-by dates. Furthermore, the Forum participants advocate for educational measures in schools and investments in platforms that offer and redistribute surplus food.

More transparency should be created in all supply chains with regard to food waste in order to make the problem more visible. All actors in the chain should be obliged to document and report how much waste they produce and what is done with it. Another focus should be on new ways of collecting data and on tackling food waste in the agricultural sector. "The EU should also carry out a best practice evaluation of the different member states on their existing reporting structures and incentives, as well as corrective measures," says the final report of the Citizens' Panel.

Panel members randomly selected

The participants of the Citizens' Panel on Food Waste were randomly selected by an independent polling company. To reflect the diversity of people in the EU, the panel members were mixed according to geographic origin (nationality and urban/rural), gender, age, socio-economic background and level of education to represent the EU population. These criteria were supplemented by a question on the attitude of those randomly selected to the EU, so that EU critics would be as adequately represented in the Citizens' Panel as EU supporters, according to their share of the population. Young people aged 16-25 were over-represented. They made up one third of the participants. A gender balance was also maintained.

The Citizens' Panel met for three sessions, starting from 16 - 18 December 2022 in Brussels, from 20 - 22 January 2023 online and again in Brussels from 10 - 12 February 2023. The citizens’ recommendations will support the Commission’s work on food waste. They will also serve as guidance to help EU Member States in achieving the future targets in reducing food waste.

Adoption of legislative proposal in July 2023

On 5 July 2023, the EU Commission adopted a legislative proposal to tackle food waste with important benefits for consumers, businesses and the environment. It will now have to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council, a process which can take up to two years. After that it can take another year to transpose the directive into law by the EU member states. In a worst-case scenario the process will be finalized by 2026.

The Citizens' Panel was organised and moderated by experts from The Danish Board of Technology (DBT), deliberativa, ifok and Missions Publiques. These four participating companies brought their long experience in organising mini publics to the panel.

Criticism of the process

Members of the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition have observed the EU Citizens' Panel on Food Waste. The coalition observes the following critiques and recommend the following changes: 

  • Lack of a public sphere perspective. As in the case of the CoFoE, the ECPs were designed as a bubble that had no feedback loop with ongoing public debates. Beyond the small community of people following the citizen panels, there was little public attention to it nor debate about it. Thus, the citizen panel did not contribute to expanding the EU debate on food waste.
  • Topic selection was top-down. Instead, it should be chosen by or with citizens themselves, such as on successful European citizens’ initiatives. The topic appears to have been selected on the basis of what policy dossiers were at the ‘right’ policy stage, rather than on topics that are in the public debate. While this might be an argument to put ‘food waste’ on the political agenda, it missed the mark.
  • Expert selection process. The ‘knowledge committee’ that informed the process was set up by the same institution that is supposed to follow up on the outcome. In consequence, most of the experts that provided input were broadly aligned with the European Commission’s initial point of view. The outcome of the recommendations is highly coherent with the ‘individual responsibility’ framing of food waste put forward by the Commission during the first session, and thus a more systemic understanding of the issue was sidelined.
  • Deliberation process does not allow for much contestation or debate, and all input and expertise is complementary. Instead, experts should introduce pro/con arguments or experts with diversified views should be offered. Participants could also be introduced to the views of European political groups on food waste.
  • Inclusion of underrepresented groups. To ensure the voices of vulnerable groups are heard, a greater reach-out via NGOs that work with such groups is needed. Additionally, further criteria to include members of marginalized communities could be implemented in the recruitment process.
  • The ‘knowledge committee’ filtered what the role of civil society was. The ‘civil society’ actors that were invited as experts provided participants with input oriented towards the Commission proposal, focused on the ‘individual responsibility’ of consumers. For instance, one of the ‘civil society’ actors that participated as experts suggested during the first day of the panel that consumers should go to stores with ‘shopping lists’ to avoid buying more things than they need. Hence, civil society that might provide more contestatory ideas to the Commission were absent from the process. 
  • Much of the debate was on campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ on food waste, rather than on setting targets, which is what the Commission is actually legislating on. In this sense, for instance there was a recent statement by a coalition of NGOs that was not introduced, nor these NGOs were invited to provide feedback (only WWF was invited on Friday of the first session, but they were unable to make it at the end). 

Citizens' Panel follows citizens' recommendations

The Citizens' Panel is a direct result of the conference on the Future of Europe. At this conference, 800 randomly selected citizens from all over the EU also discussed the further development of democracy in the European Union. One of the recommendations that emerged was the wish to use randomly selected citizens' panels on a regular basis in the EU. The EU institutions have followed this wish.

In addition to the Citizens' Panel on Food Waste, panels on learning mobility and virtual worlds were also held between February and April 2023.

Read more