Toidupank founder: By reducing food waste we can reduce climate change

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Piet Boerefijn. Source: ERR

A considerable part of climate change is caused by food waste. Food waste is a waste of land, water, energy, labour and other resources. It is unethical and leads to huge amount of greenhouse emissions, says Piet Boerefijn, founder and manager of the Toidupank ('Food Bank') charity, which collects surplus food from supermarkets and redistributes it to those in need.

Boerefijn provided this opinion piece to ERR's online news in Estonian, which is translated in its entirety as follows.

Every year, globally, one third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of food is being wasted. In the EU, this comes to 88 million tonnes. In Estonia 99,800 tonnes of food is wasted of which 47,180 tonnes was edible. That means that every day, 129,260 kilos of edible food are going to waste.

That is every day 15 fully-laden garbage trucks with edible food going to the garbage dump!

This is a huge amount and it is even without the agricultural sector, where a lot of food is also left unsold and uneaten in the fields and in warehouses.

One kilo of food thrown away causes 2,5 kilo in CO2 emissions. Food waste generates 8.2  percent of global greenhouse emissions which is almost six times more than aviation. If food waste and food loss were its own country, it would be after China and the US the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world.

It is clear that we can not go on like this and something needs to be done. That is why six years ago, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, in which one goal 12.3 tells us every nation should half food waste by the year 2030. In addition, the EU came up with the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy. Within these goals and strategies, the food waste hierarchy is the corner stone of all actions.

This hierarchy shows different options from most preferred to least preferred of what should be done with surplus food. The most preferred progression is: 1) avoidance of surplus food, 2) feeding the hungry people through charities, 3) feeding animals, 4) industrial use, 5) composting, and, least preferred: 6) sending food refuse to landfill sites.

Most food is wasted in households. Environmental effects of food waste becomes bigger the further it happens in the chain from farm to fork. If the food is wasted in a household,  already a lot of energy, transport, packing materials and labor has been used to get it there. Therefore priority should be given to teach consumers to buy less, to waste less and to buy food that is less harmful for nature.

There are many different things in what can be done to change this. One thing is to teach people about food safety and date labelling. Many people do not know the difference between Parim Enne and Kõlblik Kuni types of food and many think they have to throw away food that has passed its Parim Enne date. But this food can still be eaten, some products even years after the date. With Parim Enne the producer only guarantees that until this date taste, color and consistence is the same as when the product was produced. After the date these properties might change but still it will not become unhealthy or dangerous to eat it. So, why throw away this food? People do not throw away their telephone after the guarantee has finished. So why should they throw away good food after the guarantee has finished?

Food redistribution

In eleven years, the 15 Estonian Toidupank centers have rescued more than 10 million kilos of food. Through this work, emissions of 25 million kilos of CO2 was prevented. Primarily, the food was donated by supermarkets, but also by producers, importers, farmers, catering firms, restaurants and shipping companies donated the food they could not sell. Mainly food that otherwise would have ended up on the garbage dump. Good food brought from where there was too much, to where there was too little. 

Over the years Toidupank has done a lot of lobby work in order to improve tax legislation and food regulations. Thanks to this, firms can now donate without obstacles, without worries about food safety and without the risk of being taxed on their donations. Thanks to this work the environment for food redistribution in Estonia is now well developed and according to a study of the European Commission of last year it is the best of all northern and eastern European countries.

At the moment the Food Bank has 15,000 clients per week, which is 1.2 percent of the Estonian population. Due to the corona crisis, the amount of clients grew last year with 139 percent. Unfortunately, food turnover grew only with 32 percent. Last year, the food bank had a turnover of 2,47 million kilos of food of which 73 percent was rescued food. Half of the food was distributed across 160 charities, the other half via 60 local governments (there are 79 municipalities in Estonia – ed.).

Oldest food bank in the world?

Food banks are specialized in rescuing food, good food that for whatever could not be sold and otherwise would have ended up on the garbage dump. They control it, pack it and distribute it to people who need it. The first food bank in the world was established in the U.S., more specifically in Phoenix, AZ, in 1967.

At least ... that is what everybody thinks. Few people know that 604 years earlier, in the year 1363, in Tallinn we already had a "food bank". In that year the Tallinna Suurgildi lauagild was established, which was working according to the same principles as today's food banks: Helping poor people with food aid, preventing food from being wasted and create solidarity between people. Rich businessmen supported this guild by donations and through testaments.

Food was distributed two times per week in cooperation with [Tallinn churches] the Püha Vaimu kirik, Oleviste kirik and Jaani seegi Kirik. Just as today, with the food bank, food was donated by town markets and traders because they could not sell it, or there wasjust  too much of it. Such goods may not have been inedible, but simply did not meet the standards or had been traded in breach of commercial principles.

For example, one 1518 cartload of burbot (freshwater cod – ed.) that had been brought from Narva to Tallinn was distributed to the poor simply because the fish had not been salted. The idea was that it was not ethical to throw away good food while at the same time there were hungry people around (Source: Tallinna Ajalugu I, 1561. aastani, Tiina Kala, Toomas Tamla). So taking care of the weakest, fellow citizens and taking care of the environment is nothing new.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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