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Denis Naughten: 'The extent of the damage our appetite for excess is doing to our world is unthinkable'

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Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

I am appalled that we as a small nation generate two tonnes of food waste every minute, yet one person in every eight go hungry in Ireland.

The extent of the damage our appetite for excess is doing to our world is unthinkable.

It is a conundrum of our time that deprivation exists alongside a wasteful culture and what we do about it.  Older generations laid much store by the adage 'Waste Not, Want Not'.  They understood the seasonal and cyclical nature of abundance and need.  In a modern society, where everything is available, all year round and at every price point, new insight is required as to how we can live within the capacity of our planet in terms of the materials we consume and the waste we must manage.   It is easy to preach to people that our way of life is unsustainable.  It is harder to convince them to take action.

Much of the talk on climate change has focused on energy generation and how we choose to travel or heat our homes. However, what we eat has an enormous climate impact. The carbon footprint of wasted food is estimated at 3.3 gigatonnes globally. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would rank behind only the US and China for greenhouse gas emissions.

There is enough food in the world, but because of our wastefulness, our inefficiency, people still go hungry. Food security is an urgent economic and environmental imperative of our time.

But to make change we must start with the here and now.  Like climate action, action on food waste is needed right across our society.  It is a very human response to look at a problem and conclude that the solution lies with others.  If only farmers wouldn’t grow too much of the wrong thing; if only supermarkets wouldn’t super-discount vegetables; and, if only consumers wouldn’t fail to plan every meal.  The reality is that we all play a role and we can all be part of the solution.

Today, I am launching a package of food waste prevention initiatives.  Each initiative will address a challenge at some point in the supply and consumption chain. I hope, by raising the profile of the issue nationally, that food waste will become an issue of public concern and debate.

Factors that often contributes to food waste by consumers is confusion over sell-by and best-before dates. Reduced, or better, food packaging also has a role to play - excessive or unsustainably sourced packing forms part of the environmental cost of food. The appearance of fruit and vegetables is known to influence consumer buying. A significant part of total food wastage occurs at the consumer level.

Therefore one of the initiatives I am announcing today is that I am establishing Ireland’s first ever Action Group on Wasted Food in the Retail Sector, to be chaired by retail expert Eamonn Quinn.  Its inaugural meeting will be held today.

The Action Group is made of all the main supermarket chains and I have asked the group to come up with concrete agreements on their food promotions and how they’ll influence awareness among their customers and report back to me within an agreed timeframe.

Some companies operating in Ireland are affiliated to UK and European retailers who are already taking food waste measures abroad.  I want to see, as a minimum, those companies implementing equivalent prevention measures in Ireland. 

Supermarkets have made themselves indispensable in our modern busy lives. They do it very well but their influence - their purchasing power and their marketing power - brings responsibility too.

Corporate Social Responsibility must be meaningful and not just a governance tick-box.  I want to see Irish supermarkets leading the way on this issue. As a first step, I would like to see them signing up to the Food Waste Charter for Ireland which I am co-signing today with Laura Burke, CEO of the Environment Protection Agency.

The Charter is a statement of principle and commitment about combating food waste.  The principle involves an acknowledgement of the food waste problem and our role in solving it by undertaking specific food waste prevention actions. 

Every single one of us can sign up to this Charter at StopFoodWaste.ie and take responsibility for our own actions.  I hope the Charter will become the home of an Irish Food Waste community where ideas can be exchanged, support sought and found and most of all that the current energy for change can be sustained.

I am also increasing my financial support to the EPA’s ‘Stop Food Waste’ campaign.  We need to get the message out and this will allow the team at EPA to grow the excellent work that they do around the country with community groups and families.  Behaviour change can be a slow burn but it is possible. 

I am also supporting a new publicity campaign which gets underway this week around how the brown bin can play a role in reinforcing this message in people’s homes.  The message will highlight how the brown bin can not only help with proper waste segregation but also raise awareness of the scale and nature of food wasted every day. 

If we find ourselves repeatedly tipping mouldy bread or wilted salad leaves into the brown bin, it is more likely that we will think twice before buying so much the next time.  Public education, awareness and involvement is critical to the success of any campaign whether it’s about climate action, air quality or food waste prevention.

As the profile of food waste gains visibility internationally, it will become vital that Ireland can demonstrate that we are already on top of the problem.

I cannot pass on this opportunity to mention Foodcloud - a wonderful example of social entrepreneurism. On its own, food donation is not the answer to food waste. However, it is a valuable and important tool in dealing with unsold food.  Many shops and charities have been working quietly in this area for decades.  FoodCloud is facilitating the just-in-time transfer of food to charity in a way that maximises the opportunity for surplus food to be used.  Their work provides an inspirational platform to build upon.  They have opened the door to bigger questions around food waste and shone a light on the difficult reality of life for 1 in 8 Irish people that don’t have enough food to eat. I want to see similar technology-based innovation emerging.

The reality of the scale of the problem globally is 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year yet 1 billion people don’t have enough to eat.   In Ireland we contribute significantly to this appalling reality. I firmly believe that if we want to find sustainable solutions that those solutions must come from ourselves.

Today I remember the words of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

I hope the initiatives I announce today to help starve our appetite for excess, will mark a new beginning, a beginning we can all take ownership of.

Online Editors