It was a telephone call that changed Maria de Lurdes Pinto’s mindset. The former civil servant was like most of us: she would occasionally let what was left over from dinner end up in the trash, without giving a second thought to the impact it could have. But when the European Commission (EC) invited her to join citizens across Europe to talk about food waste, she found herself, at the age of 70, learning about a universe that, so unknown, was after all so present in her everyday.
The story of Maria de Lurdes, from Lisbon, is one of 150 adventures. The theme of food waste is opening doors to a new phase in democracy in the European Union, by putting into practice for the first time the main innovation of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Over the past three months, citizens of several European countries have been asked to talk about food waste and have participated in several face-to-face sessions and online. They made 23 recommendations to change.
At stake is a social and environmental problem: official data show that around 57 million tonnes of food are wasted in the European Union (EU) every year, equivalent to 127 kilograms per inhabitant. It’s about 130 million euros that literally go to waste, when thousands of Europeans don’t have access to a complete meal.
In this scenario, 2020 numbers show that Portugal is above average. In the fourth country in the EU where the most food is thrown away, each Portuguese person wastes an average of almost 184 kilograms of food per year.
Make better use of what is produced
The premise of the Citizen Panels is simple: around 150 citizens are randomly selected by the EC, which takes into account gender quotas, age (for example, a third of participants must be between 16 and 25 years old), education and geographic location, to discuss a particular topic in an organized way and make recommendations to policy makers.
In this form of citizen participation, the number of representatives from each country is proportional to the size of its population. In the panels on food waste, there were five Portuguese: Maria de Lurdes Pinto, Raul Caetano, Carolina Cruz, Rui Silva and Telmo Teixeira.
Divided into 12 groups with elements from different corners of Europe, citizens attended three different sessions, where they attended plenary sessions, contacted actors in the food production chain and discussed issues such as the origin and causes of food waste. The culmination of three months’ work – 23 citizens’ recommendations for policy makers – was presented and voted on last Sunday at the final session of the Citizens’ Panels on the subject in Brussels.
The approach comes with regard to the targets for combating food waste that the European Commission wants to define, within the scope of the “From farm to plate” strategy and its Ecological Pact. By June, EC representatives revealed, percentage reduction targets will be established, applied to all Member States, which, despite the “legal obligation to reduce food waste by 2030”, will not have the funding to achieve them.
“To the climate change will force us to produce with fewer resources. Therefore, we have to make better use of what is produced”, Sandra Gallina, Director General of Health and Food Safety at the European Commission, told journalists.
Support, sanctions and other measures
In the plenary held last weekend, the 23 citizens’ recommendations were reviewed and voted on one by one. Each group had two suggestions – with the exception of one, which chose to make a single recommendation – and selected a spokesperson to explain the reasoning behind the idea.
For about two hours, there was talk of incentives for the production and local trade of seasonal products, tax benefits and sanctions, European networks for sharing information (and even food!). Citizens suggested more scientific research, transparency and support for supermarkets and restaurants so that they can deliver surplus food to those who need it most.
The labels and packaging were also the subject of conversation and there was a demand for clarification of the information that can be read on the labels, which must be attached to more sustainable packaging. The main pillar? Educate children and sensitize adults – suggestions that are common to almost all groups, which represent, according to the EC, “a very strong message for Member States”.
An idea repeated several times was also the funding of entities that redistribute surplus food in restaurants or supermarkets. In Portugal, projects such as ReFood, Zero Desperdício, Dose Certa and Fruta Feia do exactly that work in the fight against waste, helping private individuals, but also establishments (supermarkets or restaurants) where they collect leftovers. Fruta Feia, for example, allows anyone to buy baskets of fruit that, despite being in good condition, have been discarded by supermarkets due to aesthetic standards.
Specifically for the Portuguese who participated in the panel, monitoring, educating and communicating is the secret. During the sessions, Maria de Lurdes and Raul proposed raising children’s and adults’ awareness of the problem, through the inclusion of food waste in the school curriculum and dissemination campaigns.
On the other hand, the Carolina Cruz group left the recommendation to encourage good practices and sanction bad ones. Rui Silva, on the other hand, spoke of “twin cities”: areas where food production is similar, which could communicate with each other to find ways to combat food waste.
O timing of the recommendations
In the end, the participants were satisfied, excited to see their recommendations put into practice. The results of the first Citizens Panel will reach political decision-makers, but the statements made by the European Commission at a press conference leave doubts regarding their application in the short term – since, in the first instance, we are talking about numbers and not concrete measures.
The truth is that the recommendations will not have a direct influence on the definition of targets for reducing food waste in the EU that will be presented in June. “Citizens’ recommendations are not about targets, which means they go beyond the scope of our legislative proposal”, admitted an official source of the European Commission, when questioned by PÚBLICO. “Unfortunately, the timing of the Citizens Panel on the legislative proposal is not ideal. This is something we explained to citizens very transparently.”
On the other hand, the European Commission sees citizens’ opinions as a “tool” to negotiate with Member States. “Many of the actions [propostas pelos cidadãos] will feed into the implementation of the proposal. If we need to reach goals, we need to implement different actions”, he concludes. Even so, there are recommendations that may not be considered, for “cost reasons” or because they are not within the competences of the European Union.
Rui Silva, a 49-year-old engineer and one of the participants on the panel that PÚBLICO later contacted, warns that the information passed on to citizens “was not as specific” as that transmitted in a press conference, but he was aware that not all information Ideas discussed could be implemented in the short term. The “diversity of people” may have led to a variety of interpretations, he confesses, but, for him, the European Commission was “quite clear”.
“This is a very touchy subject. For example, if you reduce production to avoid waste, food can even increase in cost, from what I understand. They have to see all this with experts before they do anything”, she says.
The next sessions of the Citizens’ Panels, scheduled for “the next few weeks”, will discuss the digital world and student exchange in the EU, the European Commission also revealed.
“Change starts in our homes”
After the “very interesting” experience (a term she repeats dozens of times to describe all stages of the process), Maria de Lurdes cannot resist going to the supermarket or restaurant without asking those responsible what they do with the excess food. It’s a habit that’s here to stay: “Now I’m asking everywhere! I go to the supermarket: ‘Look, I wanted to ask you about food waste.’ My daughter is already tired of listening to me ”, she says, unable to contain her laughter.
Curiosity and insistence even led her to arrange a private meeting with the manager of a supermarket. The conclusion? “They told me that even the bread is thrown away because if it’s not good for the customers, it’s not good for anyone. So how is it not good if it’s food from that day?”, she questions her.
Sitting next to the former civil servant, Telmo Teixeira – who, at 24, is the youngest of the Portuguese summoned – complements his reasoning, recounting what he witnessed firsthand when he worked in a catering chain. “Food that could no longer be served to customers was thrown away and employees who tried to bring it home risked being fired,” he recalls.
In this sense, Maria de Lurdes Pinto suggests penalizing establishments that do not avoid waste, admitting, however, that defining this logistics would not be an easy task. “Would someone walk around every night to supervise? It’s difficult” – and, therefore, the fight against waste involves raising awareness. “I and other citizens also suggested in the sessions that there should be more publicity, because people are not aware of the problem”, she says, adding that campaigns must go through the media themselves.
“Making a shopping list, knowing what is needed, organizing the fridge so that the oldest things are at the front… Change starts in our homes”, he concludes.
“Now, everything is excess”
It is through children that it is possible to change the world, which is why education is a pillar in the fight against food waste – and this is consensual, not only among the participants who spoke with PÚBLICO in Brussels, but also among all citizens challenged by European Commission to think about the issue. For Telmo Teixeira, this involves, from childhood, “teaching people to value that fruit or vegetable that can still be consumed, but that is not bought because it is ugly”.
Raul Caetano, who traveled with his wife, believes that change will only happen in the long term, with the teachings transmitted to the next generations. “The first intervention I made was to say that this should be included in schools”, he says. At the age of 78, he fondly remembers the times when food waste was not so close. “Now, it’s different. 40, 60, 70 years ago, food was not wasted. Now, everything is excess. There is not a minimum of civility in this regard ”, he laments.
In order to obtain results, Raul calls for the “mobilization of ordinary citizens and journalists” and for more initiatives that replicate the Citizen Panels. And, when he was given the floor at the end of the session, he stated in plain Portuguese: “I would still like to live to see the world get better.”