Our Trade Letter Interview with Dr. Babette Winter and Tanja Dräger de Teran
Dr Babette Winter (State Secretary for Culture and European Affairs within Thuringia’s State Chancellery) and Tanja Dräger de Teran (Specialist in sustainable land use, climate protection and nutrition at WWF Germany) talk about food waste and ways in which to prevent it.
How often do you find yourself having to throw food away at home? And what do you do to avoid this happening?
Tanja Dräger de Teran: We have two children and a lot of visitors too, so it’s not always easy for us to coordinate how much we buy. But we jointly bear simple tricks in mind, such as moving food to the front of the fridge when it’s close to the best-before date so that this food gets eaten first. Personally, I have got better at using up leftovers when cooking and I have become more creative. Obviously, there are still leftovers, but we have already reduced them quite a lot.
Dr Babette Winter: Since the children are grown up and as I am also away a lot with work, unfortunately more food gets left over at home. I have to choose between having a mostly empty fridge or enjoying at least a degree of food diversity. But even if I buy small portions, sometimes there are still leftovers. This bothers me, also because I grew up with a different mentality, being a grandchild of the war generation.
Do you think people in Germany appreciate food these days?
Winter: On the one hand, people are very aware of what they eat. It began with the slow food movement and with buying local and organic produce, and this is a growing market. On the other hand, for most people the key criterion is low prices and that obviously has a lot to do with people’sincome. Elsewhere in Europe, such as in Brussels, where I lived for a while, food often has a different value and the people there are willing to spend moreon what they eat.
de Teran: In Germany, spending on food accounts for approximately 10 per cent of people’s income, putting Germany far behind most other countries in Europe. Nonetheless, I am seeing a small trend of increasing demand for quality handmade produce such as sausages and cheese. This is an encouraging sign that there is an increasing appreciation of quality.
What could be done to increase people’s appreciation of food and to prevent food waste?
Winter: All sorts of things could be done, starting with changing people’s attitudes. Since the 1990s at the latest, everything has been available everywhere throughout Germany – people still buy strawberries in January, even though they don’t grow here at that time of the year. We need to have a rethink here. Additionally, there’s no need to eat meat every day and five-day-old cheese is still good enough to eat. There’s only so much we can achieve here with regulatory policy. Legal pressure often results in huge debates, as demonstrated in, for example, the area of the environment by the ban introduced on incandescent light bulbs. Bans are immediately seen as an infringement on personal freedom. It’s not always easy for politicians to reconcile these conflicting priorities.
de Teran: It’s important that we consider the past. People once lived with scarcity and now we have goods in abundance. All the stakeholders act accordingly, and that includes the food service industry, which offers plentiful buffets and large portions in order to remain competitive. We need to have a rethink here too. Take hotels and restaurants, for example, where buffet refilling and front cooking are areas in which action could be taken. It’s obviously also a question of costs and staffing. In general terms, the WWF has been calling for a joint strategy for years, in order to get everyone who is involved on board. A proposal which has also come from the federal states of Germany is a national coordination body which would develop a national strategy for measures to combat food waste.
The United Nations have set Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short, to be achieved by 2030. These include halving the per capita food waste at the retail sector and consumer level, and reducing the loss of food all along the production and supply chain. What do you think of this step?
de Teran: Germany has committed to meeting the stipulated targets. But in order to halve our food waste in the near future, we first need to know what figures we are starting with. There are estimates in Germany ranging from 10 to 18 million tonnes. We urgently need a standard basis of calculation, and this needs to be set at the European level. Which is not to say that Germany should simply wait until this happens. Quite the opposite, in fact – it is the responsibility of politicians to trigger a discussion within society as a whole, establish round-table talks and make all the stakeholders aware of their duties, be they in agriculture, food processing or the retail sector, or large-scale consumers.
Winter: The Sustainable Development Goal for 2030 is primarily political in nature, because there is indeed as yet no quantification or base data. But it will at least get us to establish a standard system of measurement for the first time. The primary issue here is the workload involved: the researchers want to take all sorts of specific and absolutely correct factors into account. But most importantly, a system of this kind has to be manageable for the parties who are expected to provide the data, namely the member states, the retail sector and the producers. The challenge is finding a way to achieve at least 70 or 80 per cent measurability in order to create the basis for comparisons. At the same time, the stakeholders’ reporting requirements have to be manageable.
There is currently also an intense discussion going on in Germany concerning best-before dates, specifically whether they should be abolished for dry goods or whether there should be more of a distinction between a best-before date and a use-by date. What are your thoughts on these proposals?
Winter: In the case of some dry goods in particular, such as sugar, you do wonder why any such date is necessary at all. The right approach for more perishable produce is a clear use-by date, as it is already the case with meat and fish. This would also be legally binding and would offer the consumer protection. Making a distinction between the two types of date rather confuses the issue.
de Teran: Studies have shown that a best-before date is often misunderstood – people tend to throw products away shortly before such a date, without actually having checked the quality of the products themselves. We therefore need a term that’s easier to understand. A useby date is definitely the clearest option.
The initiative ‘Zu gut für die Tonne!’ (Too good for the bin!) launched by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture likewise aims to reduce food waste. Among other things, this has involved more than 17,000 ‘Beste-Reste-Boxen’ (boxes for leftovers) being distributed to restaurants, allowing guests to take what they don’t eat home with them. How much potential do you think campaigns like this have?
de Teran: It’s a good building block. It is not, however, a complete solution, because we need to tackle things at an earlier stage. It’s also important that the food service industry gives some thought to, for example, making sure there is less waste at the end of a buffet. Smaller portions would also make sense, as this would eliminate customers even having to ask whether they can take their leftovers home with them.
Winter: Our grandparents didn’t think twice about having the last bit of a schnitzel wrapped for them to take home, which was a little embarrassing for us grandchildren. This kind of box is therefore not all that widespread in Germany yet, in comparison to the ‘doggy bags’ used widely in the USA. An alternative for the food service industry really would be to offer various portion sizes at different prices. Another approach would be to offer mediumsized portions, with the option of having a second helping either for free or for a small surcharge.
de Teran: A brewery pub in Munich has recently started serving half a pork knuckle, with a whole knuckle available upon request if you are especially hungry. This change is saving the lives of a great many of pigs. To cater for tourists from South East Asia, there is also the option of serving rice rather than sauerkraut, and this avoids a great deal of waste. The way things are communicated is important too, placing the focus on the appreciation of the food served, rather than on encouraging people to go without.
Assuming all the stakeholders do eventually pitch in and there is clarity as soon as possible regarding the measurement methods, do you think the UN’s ambitious goals can be achieved?
Winter: I’m optimistic that we can do it. But we do need to at least start with the measurement methods and a change in people’s mindsets right now, otherwise global change on the scale intended will prove to be difficult. There’s an instrument of control that we haven’t yet touched upon: with funding programmes or public contracts, it’s important to determine whether companies are complying with the sustainability criteria.
de Teran: Whether we can really succeed in halving food waste remains to be seen. But globally speaking, it’s important that we have set ourselves such a goal, as it gives us a benchmark and framework upon which to base our actions. I am pleased to see that food waste has become a matter of debate in many countries. The UK is a shining example, with a great deal already having been achieved there at the research level, while the industry has initiated a common measurement method with firmly agreed goals. And above all, real competition has flourished within the sector regarding how food waste can be avoided. This shows Germany that it really is possible to get all the stakeholders round the same table, agree on common goals and stipulate action guidelines containing practicable tips and tricks for all areas of out-of-home catering, as it has been the case in the UK. Progress will be made, in Germany too. The most important thing is that we always bear in mind that all wasted food is a wasted resource – and our resources are getting scarcer as it is.
About the interviewees
Tanja Dräger de Teran has been specialist in sustainable land use, climate protection and nutrition at WWF Germany since 2005. She has overseen a number of studies on the topics of sustainable nutrition and food waste, focusing in particular on the impact on the environment and the climate. The most recent study entitled ‘Das große Wegschmeißen’ (The Big Throwaway) was published in 2015. She has a degree in geography and worked at the Ecologic Institute from 2000 to 2005.
Dr Babette Winter has been the State Secretary for Culture and European Affairs within Thuringia’s State Chancellery since 2014. In this capacity, she is the rapporteur on the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy at the EU’s Committee of the Regions. In the course of her career, Dr Winter, who has a PhD in chemistry, has headed the environmental policy division of Thuringia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, the Environment and Nature Conservation and also the public relations activities of the State Agency for Nature, the Environment and Consumer Protection in North Rhine-Westphalia.