Can the solution to our food waste problem be found in Denmark?

By Justin Cremer

March 3, 2018

The heated debates over current agricultural practices and how to feed a growing population tend to focus on tools like genetic engineering or the use of inputs like fertilizers and herbicides. What’s often lost in the rhetoric is a simple truth: We are already producing more than enough food to feed everyone, everywhere. The problem is that far too much goes to waste.

Approximately one third of the food that is produced for human consumption globally is wasted or lost. In the United States, where some 365 million pounds of food get tossed each and every day, that number is closer to 40 percent.

Not only does this amount to the colossal waste of land, water and greenhouse gas emissions expended in the production of food, it is also a moral outrage in a world where the number of hungry people is on the rise.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if food waste could be reduced by just a fourth, the reclaimed edibles would be more than enough to feed the 815 million people classified as undernourished in the latest FAO report.

Denmark shows the way

The good news is that there is already a model for hitting that reduction, albeit on a small scale. In tiny Denmark, with its population of 5.7 million people, food waste was reduced by 25 percent in only five years. This success is attributed to a number of initiatives, including consumer education campaigns, and the nation’s supermarkets offering steep discounts on food nearing its expiration or bearing cosmetic flaws. But most of all, the Danish success story revolves around a passionate activist.

Selina Juul came to Denmark from post-communist Russia as a 13-year-old in 1993 and was shocked by the abundance of food available in Danish supermarkets. She was also appalled by the amount of food that was going to waste.

“I started out as just a consumer that was frustrated by seeing all of this waste and I felt like I just had to do something,” she said. “I’m a graphic designer, not a food person, so I started a Facebook page and it just exploded.”

Juul’s Facebook campaign, Stop Spild af Mad (Stop Wasting Food), has spearheaded well over 200 specific food waste reduction projects since 2008 and as a result more than half of Danish consumers say they now think more about their food consumption and waste. For her efforts, Juul was named ‘Dane of the Year’ in 2014. Extensive international attention soon followed.

“I basically have no life outside of this now,” she said in an interview with the Alliance, adding that our phone call came as she was reviewing a new European Union report on food waste.

One of the most significant things Juul accomplished was to get supermarkets to go all-in on the effort to reduce food waste. Denmark’s grocery stores now have dedicated sections that offer deep discounts on food nearing expiration. The country’s largest retailer, Dansk Supermarked, said it is throwing away only half the bread it was five years ago and has cut fruit and vegetable waste by 20 percent.

This idea was taken even further with the opening of Wefood, the nation’s first ever grocer to exclusively sell surplus food. The non-profit, volunteer-run store sells only recently expired food products or food with minor flaws or damaged packaging. Showing just how seriously Danes take the food waste issue, the opening of Wefood’s first store in Copenhagen was attended by Princess Marie. The concept proved so successful that a second Copenhagen location was opened within months and Wefood is currently eyeing an expansion to Aarhus.

Another Danish initiative soon followed in the form of the app Too Good to Go, which connects bargain-hungry consumers with stores, restaurants and bakeries looking to sell discounted leftover food that would otherwise be destined for the dumpster.

The success of these various programs is not due to some sort of altruism unique to the Danes. While they may be well aware of the plight of the world’s hungry or the environmental impact of food waste – it is estimated that if global food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind US and China – more than anything they just like saving money. That’s why Juul said it was “absolutely intentional” that her campaign focused on how cutting waste would directly benefit consumers.

“The beautiful thing about talking about food waste is that you don’t necessarily need to talk about hungry children in Africa, you don’t need to talk about the environmental effects and climate change,” Juul said. “You can just tell people how much time and money they will save. It doesn’t matter why they do it as long as they do something.”

Can the Danish model apply to the US?

Would some of these same initiatives be embraced by Americans, who waste an estimated $1,500 a year on food that they buy but don’t eat? There is reason to be hopeful.

Jonathan Bloom, a food waste journalist and the author of “American Wasteland,” says he has seen a significant shift in American attitudes since a landmark report from the National Resources Defense Council received widespread attention in 2012.

“In the last five years, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in Americans’ awareness on wasted food. Thanks in large part to all of the activism and actions of a variety of food waste warriors and the Save the Food campaign, more than 60 percent of Americans say they are fairly or very knowledgeable on the topic,” Bloom said.

Bloom somewhat reluctantly agreed that focusing on money is likely the best way to motivate Americans to waste less food.

“Appealing to our household budgets isn’t the only way to get people to understand the effect of wasted food, but it tends to be deemed the best way to prompt behavior change,” he said. “It’s vital to discuss the environmental and ethical impact of food waste, in addition to the economic one, to fully understand the issue. But I recognize that we’re all motivated by self-interest.”

While corporate behemoth Walmart has announced a zero-waste goal, Bloom said that for the most part American supermarkets have not bought in to the waste reduction mission to the same degree as their Danish counterparts.

“A few supermarkets have set waste minimization goals, but I’ve yet to see any US supermarket chain fully embrace empowering shoppers to minimize their waste via in-store discounts,” he said. “I do think it’s feasible and even advisable for a supermarket to make reducing wasted food a key issue. It’ll just take a commitment from store leadership.”

Most US grocery stores do work with food banks, distributing perishables, dented canned goods and items with pending expiration dates to the hungry. Still, there’s much that could be done by individuals to curb waste.

Juul, who has never been to the US, said American consumers would benefit from a bit of “downscaling.”

“In the United States, you have a problem with your huge portion sizes. Bulk discounts are also a major problem,” she said. “When consumers see a ‘buy one get one free’ offer, they take it but then they don’t end up eating all of that food.”

What consumers buy and then throw away is one thing, but activists like Juul and Bloom are quick to point out that a massive amount of food goes to waste before it ever reaches stores. It’s estimated that at least one-fifth of the fruits and vegetables produced don’t even get sent to supermarkets simply because of cosmetic standards.

Bloom said that Western consumers need to “learn that real food has curves.”

“Just as we’ve been taught and have helped teach ourselves that supermarket produce must be homogenous, Americans and American retailers can help shift the paradigm so that imperfect produce is normal,” he said.

Some of that reconditioning is well underway. The French supermarket chain Intermarche launched a successful advertising campaign focused on “inglorious fruits and vegetables,” while US startups like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest are trying to salvage the curvy cucumbers and spotted apples that are needlessly discarded.

Juul also pointed to a Danish company making tomato soup exclusively with “ugly” tomatoes and said similar initiatives can be found in several other countries, including the Netherlands and the UK. She calls this new wave of innovative startups looking to make money off of food that would otherwise be tossed “Food Waste 2.0.”

Although Juul has become something of a global food waste celebrity, she said that you don’t need a big platform do something about the issue.

“You don’t have to be a politician or a superstar, just make the change in your own life,” she said. “Stop buying too much food, stop throwing it away and then spread the word. Once you realize that you are saving money by stopping your food waste, you’ll tell your friends, then they will do it and tell their friends. And then you’ve built a movement.”