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Food destroyers

March 25, 2012

Filmmaker and book author Valentin Thurn spoke to Deutsche Welle about the mind-boggling amounts of food that go to waste in industrialized countries, and the balance of responsibility for hunger in the world.

A large quanity of meat and other food products in the garbage
Film Taste the WasteImage: W-Film

A study from researchers at the University of Stuttgart claims that the average German throws away over 80 kilograms of food every year. This is what prompted Germany's agriculture minister to launch an initiative earlier this month to cut that amount in half by 2025. DW spoke to Valentin Thurn, the author of "The Food Destroyers" (Die Essensvernichter, together with Stefan Kreutzberger) and director of "Taste the Waste" about the immense scale of food spoilage and what could be done about it.

Deutsche Welle: Are there any reliable figures on how many food products in Europe and the United States end up in the garbage?

Valentin Thurn: Research findings are not very precise but they suggest that the amount of food that gets consumed in industrialized countries is approximately the same as the amount of food that gets thrown away. Wastefulness is something that happens along the entire supply chain: It begins with farmers sorting out their produce, continues with transport and trade, and goes all the way to the consumer. The number of calories that end up in the garbage in North America and Europe would be sufficient to feed the hungry of this world three times over. A billion people go hungry and we know that there are now more than a billion people in the world who are overweight.

Valentin Thurn
Valentin Thurn urges consumers to be more aware of their habitsImage: privat

What is the main reason for this wastefulness?

There is no single villain out there that we can point our fingers to. It is a system that has been established over the past few decades. We as consumers are in the midst of it. But I do think that there is a central player in all this - namely, the market. The market sets standards and determines what agricultural products must look like. It forces farmers, for example, to sort out the potatoes, carrots and cucumbers which do not meet certain standards, which look different or have a crooked shape. In the best-case scenario, farmers can feed their animals with such produce. In the worst-case scenario, however, the produce ends up in the composting bin.

Food leftovers
Hunger is primarily a question of distribution and access to foodImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Is there a connection between this type of wastefulness in the richer parts of the world and hunger in the poorer parts of the world?

Yes, unfortunately our throw-away mentality makes us partially responsible for hunger in the world. Our behavior is not the main cause of hunger - it is the neglect of agriculture in the affected countries over many decades. But we should keep in mind that people starve in developing countries not because there is too little food on the market, but because they cannot afford to buy food.

This is because we now eat off the same grain markets as the Africans or Asians. If the demand from Europe increases so do the prices on the world market. To that extent, the amounts of food we discard contribute to hunger in the world.

 What could lawmakers in rich societies do to curb the waste?

Politicians can do a whole lot. Any new regulation would of course have to be compatible with our market economy. To start with, our standards and norms on foods could be loosened. The EU has led by example and revoked some of the food norms. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to trade. A curvy cucumber is the best example. Changing policies is the first step, but their implementation lies in the hands of businesses.

The cover of the book "Food Destroyers"
Valentin Thurn co-authored "Food Destroyers" with Stefan KreutzbergerImage: Kiepenheuer & Witsch

But there is a whole bunch of other things. For example: what do supermarkets do with their leftovers? Instead of throwing them in the garbage, they could also give them away. Some supermarkets give them to voluntary organizations that distribute food donations to the needy, which is wonderful, but not everybody does this. Lawmakers could, for instance, hike up the waste collection fees to such a degree that companies start looking for creative solutions to prevent food products from ending up in the garbage.

What can consumers do in this respect?

The nice thing is that everybody can do something. You have to take a good look at yourself and your fridge and ask yourself if you have bought too much food again. Market researchers know that we buy on an impulse. We do not buy based on the needs that we actually have. The ads speak to us through images. We optionally purchase emotions. A psychologist once told us in an interview: The fridge is a kind of mood pharmacy.

We fill our refrigerators with stimulating, soothing, and all sorts of foods, depending on what the ads suggest to us. I myself used to be an impulse buyer, I have to admit. I gladly bought things that made me laugh. Then I eventually realized: Those were exactly the things I didn't really need. I had to throw them away at the end of the week. It's an anal thing: Better make a shopping list, and then if you buy something extra, cross something else off the list. It is also perhaps better not to go shopping only once a week. You can plan much better if you go shopping two or three times a week.

Interview: Matthias von Hein / tt
Editor: Greg Wiser