Everyone in Germany wastes around 75 kilos of food every year, according to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). For a city like Münster, with its 310,000 residents, this means that year after year more than 26,000 tonnes of food land in the waste bin. But are consumers alone responsible for all this food going to waste? Dr. Tobias Gumbert, who examined the question in his PhD thesis at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Münster, would like to see “an holistic approach when looking at the food system”. He calls for laws and financial incentives to guarantee that surplus food first goes to people before it ends up becoming fuel in biogas plants or animal feed. This, he says, would establish firm principles for precautionary measures to combat waste.
“In Germany, the government usually calls for a voluntary approach, appealing to actors’ individual sense of responsibility - for example to private households or individual retailers. In contrast to this, there is a lack of investment in preventive measures which would start with farmers,” is Gumbert’s critique. In response to an inquiry from the editors of wissen leben, the BMEL says that although food waste is “an issue relating to society as a whole”, it sees the solution above all in “sector-specific measures” and information campaigns aimed at the public. In Tobias Gumbert’s opinion, however, individual measures like these could lead to a global exacerbation of the problem. “If consumers throw away less food and, in doing so, demonstrate responsible behaviour, while hardly any attention is paid to retail norms or the growth in food availability - that is, reasons why the amount of wasted food rises globally - the situation continues to worsen,” he explains.
The organization Slow Food Germany also sees increasing quantities of food as a problem. “Overproduction is an integral part of the food industry. Farmers have to plant up to 30 percent more in order to deliver the quantities agreed with the retail trade, notwithstanding any fluctuations in yields,” the organization says. This makes it all the more important that politicians should change something in “the system itself”, it adds. Slow Food also criticises the individual measures planned by Julia Klöckner, the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, to halve food waste by 2030. “A responsibility analysis shows clearly that we look at the causes of food waste mostly from the standpoint of the individual consumer, instead of taking a structural view,” is the verdict of Prof. Doris Fuchs, head of the Centre of Interdisciplinary Sustainability Research at Münster University.
As a result, Tobias Gumbert calls for the political support of local initiatives. “Sharing food and using collaborative strategies may strengthen regional economies of food production and consumption, as well as further steer the organization of the food system towards more sustainable, social and equitable goals - and not just towards greater efficiency,” he explains. “But for that we also need a greater involvement on the part of members of the public, especially in their role as citizens and not just as consumers.”
Münster, he says, is in many ways a good example of this local responsibility. In 2017, for example, the association Stop Food Waste for Peace took a stand against food waste, when members and volunteers gave out free soup to 10,000 people in Münster Town Hall’s inner courtyard - soup made exclusively from “rescued” food. “Such local initiatives can build networks and facilitate joint action with other business and civil society actors - for example, in the form of a food policy council as a way of organizing responsibility politically and on a community basis,” says Gumbert. Münster is setting a good example in this respect, too, he comments: a food policy council is currently being established.