If you had to name the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, what would you guess? Probably the world’s economic powerhouses, like the US and China? You’d be right. But there’s another culprit that might surprise you: food waste.

“Food waste generates 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, and that makes food wastage the third top emitter after the US and China,” Laura Nyström, a professor at ETH Zurich, told the World Economic Forum in September.

Its impact is more than environmental – it’s economic and human as well. Because while each year we lose or waste 1.3 billion tons of food, one in nine people don’t have enough food to lead a healthy life. And that costs 2%-3% of global GDP (over $2 trillion a year) in lost productivity.

As this chart shows, consumers do play a large role in contributing to food waste – particularly in Europe and North America. But there’s also a lot of waste at the retail end.

Food waste

Attempts to deal with the problem have given birth to an entire movement: freeganism. Sometimes pejoratively referred to as “dumpster divers”, freegans live almost entirely off food they find from the rubbish bins outside supermarkets. While some find the idea less than appetizing, it demonstrates the quantity of food supermarkets are throwing away – much of which is fit for consumption. It’s this reality, rather than the chance of a cheap meal, that motivates freegans: “If we didn’t needlessly throw so much food away, I’d stop,” one man who practices freeganism told the Guardian.

Now France is tackling the issue. Last week, government officials unanimously voted for a law that aims to cut food waste. Under the new law, large supermarkets will no longer be allowed to bin or destroy unsold food. Instead, they will have to donate it to non-profit organizations who will help distribute it to those who need it.

Not everyone is sold on the idea. When the law was first proposed, some supermarket managers said it should be up to the stores themselves to come up with ways to use food that would otherwise go to waste. “We’ve signed a contract with local farmers to make a range of soups out of wonky veg. This is stuff which was never sold before, and now we have a top chef designing a soup and people love it,” one store manager told the BBC.

But whatever some people think of the move, it is already picking up momentum. A petition calling for the measures to be applied across Europe has already garnered almost 750,000 signatures. For now, all eyes will be on France to see just how much of an impact this law will have.

Have you read?
Food: how much does the world need?
Which countries waste the most food?
How can we stop wasting so much food?

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum

Image: Vegetables pulled out from waste bins of an organic supermarket are pictured in Berlin. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch