Re: Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems - E-consultation to set the track of the study

Federica Marra Leiden University, Netherlands
29.04.2013

Dear HLPE Steering Committee, Project Team and all,

It is a pleasure to be able to participate to the discussion with my contribution, which I hope can be of help.

I am currently in the process of writing my Masters dissertation on how food waste has been addressed in Japan, that, although is not among the countries on which international attention has been conventionally drawn upon, could offer some useful insights as far as context-related analyses are concerned.

Food waste in Japan is entering the public scenario only in the last few years, but this is happening in a context in which it gained specific legal attention with the Food Recycling Law in 2001 within a general discourse on garbage. That law, among the successful results of environmental policies, allowed the food industry to shift from 45% of commercial and industrial food waste recycled in 2002 to 82% in 2010 (with a prevalent conversion into feed for animals). Apart from the environmental footprint, one of the underlying concerns for its enactment was Japan’s food security, given that the nation’s self sufficiency rate has long been the lowest among industrialized countries (less than 40% on a calorie basis). This shed light on its high dependence on imports and future fluctuations of the global food availability and prices. Therefore, better resource efficiency (with a sharp progress in technology for recycling) and food availability (concerns about the nation’s future supplies) were the environmental and economic dimensions that shaped Japan’s first approach to the problem, with an initial enlarged perspective to food-related waste that gained relevant commitment of the academia and the institutions.

Except for the food banking activity (essentially starting in 2000), the national questioning to the intrinsic structure of the food line started in 2012, with a collaboration between the food industry and the ministries discussing common commercial practices that most easily result in food waste in terms of returned or early discarded food (e.g. the “1/3 rule”, mandating the delivery of a food product to the retailer to be made within the first one third of its shelf life, and the sales period to be limited to the first two-thirds of the shelf-life; arbitrary best-before dates that in some cases are shorter than abroad). These practices, not regulated by any law, emerged as a result of marketing strategies aiming at being "the most effective" for the Japanese consumer.

What indeed seems to be one of the most important and complicated issues to address currently, which had not been reflected in what we could refer to as the economical modernization of the country up to now, is the national consumer culture. This is regarded as one of the most attached to high food quality and standards, drawing high attention to freshness, appearance, labelling and to food nutritional value. It results in a general low-self-responsibility attitude and a high propensity to avoid risk. Although consumer behaviour has been included in national food and nutritional education and domestic sciences, reference to food waste have not been directly included in the nation’s practical political agenda until last year (despite some local governments’ individual initiatives). Moreover, there is very little study connection between waste-related food consumption (i.e. waste composition, reasons for disposing) and a diachronic analysis of consumer behaviour, which could shed light on how and why waste-related patterns developed through time. This could be of relevance in that the current disposition to food fads and scandal-driven panic-oriented behaviour could be traced back to a logical out-growth of historical concerns. These have been connecting traditional cultural values placed to eating and health to the shift of the focus from food security (scarcity after the war), to taste (Gourmet Boom of the 80s), to safety (food scandals), to function (food faddism). High-quality demands by consumers, that are indirectly shaping the entire system at present, could also have been induced in turn by the same construction of it over time, since the concept of freshness had a complete different connotation before the appearance of supermarkets.

Non-sustainable consumption and production patterns regarding food waste (economic constraints and social consequences) should be therefore analyzed together and from a diachronic point of view. Their interactions in time could serve to achieve an integrated insight on the vectors of food waste fighting that are likely to occur in a specific national context, as well as on specific and culture-bound interconnections between social and political actors.