Indie Documentary Plays Role in EU’s efforts to Reduce Food Waste

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In 2023, the European Union is expected to waste over 58 million tonnes of food, costing an approximate 132 billion euros. These staggering numbers seem even more unbelievable when you consider that over 37 million people struggle to afford quality meals. 
Source: European Commission’s Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy
To tackle this issue, the EU has introduced several initiatives in the past decade. Alongside a dedicated page on their website with “good practices” and a “resource library”, the EU Commission has recently proposed a law requiring each European country cut overall food waste in shops, restaurants, and households by 30% per capita by the end of 2023
With food waste a headline topic with European governments, it is clear that conversations around food waste are becoming wide-spread. But this was not always the case. Just 15 years ago, few were aware of the European Union’s food waste problem, and even fewer were making efforts to change that. 
So what changed? Where did the food waste conversation start? And who started it? 
The food waste conversation can be traced all the way back to the German film director Valentin Thurn. It started out almost by accident, when Thurn stumbled upon the story while covering grocery store dumpster divers. Assigned the project for a daytime TV special in Berlin, Thurn began to realize the significance of what he was seeing.  
“My mother suffered from hunger during wartime,” he explained. “She gave me an education that food is holy.” When Thurn saw the “garbage bins full of good food, I became angry.” he said. From there, he realized “he could do so much more”
That one TV special launched Thurn into a three year investigative project. Before then , the conversation about EU food waste was extremely limited. According to Thurn,  “There were no figures, no university working on food waste, and no NGO with any idea about the topic.”
By 2010, only two major studies on the topic had been published, one from the UK and one from Austria. But aside from a handful of European Commission reports, Thurn contends that, at the time, “the topic was almost completely out of sight in the public eye.”
Dedicated to the subject, he was able to put all his findings together into a feature length documentary entitled “Taste the Waste.” And what it revealed was astonishing. 
Source: IMDb
The film opens with two dumpster divers navigating grocery stores and sifting through food-filled dumpsters. Packed with everything from food to flowers, we learn the scale of their ventures. They reveal their successes in taking advantage of wasted food, as they save hundreds of dollars of food every month. 
“Taste the Waste” then dives deeper into areas along the food supply chain where waste isn’t just common but a requirement. Take, for example, a long time potato farmer in Germany. He reveals that he is forced to throw away roughly 40-50% of his crop. He explains that in order to sell his potatoes to stores, they must look, feel, and taste in specific ways. The reason being that consumers prioritize physical appearances of their produce. Imperfect fruits and vegetables often go unpurchased. 
Since grocery stores often purchase only produce of specific sizes, colors, and appearances, the potato, tomato, and cucumber farmers highlighted in the documentary struggle to sell a high percentage of their crop.
Further along the supply chain, the film focuses on grocery stores, particularly a French store. Speaking with the manager, it is revealed that the single store disposes of around 500 tonnes of waste annually. Much of this, the film explains, is due to misconceptions about best before dates. Consumers believe that such dates are for health reasons, while in reality, best before dates, created by the food companies themselves,  . only guarantees special attributes like a yogurt’s creaminess. Nevertheless, products nearing expiration go unsold, compelling the store to discard them. 
After three years of work, the film was finally released in 2010. Immediately, it became a hit, being one of the most-viewed indie German documentaries of 2011. However, the film’s impact transcended mere public attention. 
 
Within a few months, the German government had “announced the beginning of a campaign against food waste” with “ a nationwide study,” states Thurn. 
Moreover, the heightened conversations about food waste post-release reached an international scale, which, according to Thurn, led to the implementation of laws “in countries like France, Czech Republic, Finland, Italy.”
Outside of the political sphere, the film spurred numerous grassroots initiatives. Thurn claims the film influenced the creation of “the grassroots movement Food Sharing,” a German-based organization connecting extra food with those in need. 
Food waste initiatives were being created in such abundance that “two years after Taste the Waste we started to make a film about the first solutions that were coming up.” 
The second film, entitled “Food Savers” (2013), documents roughly a dozen examples of food waste initiatives around the EU and the United States. Some include cheaper day-old bakeries, an ecological market selling misfit produce, and restaurants charging for uneaten food. 
Today, food waste is a widely acknowledged issue in Europe, championed by companies, restaurants, and governments alike. However, a mere decade ago, our world remained largely silent. Without indie documentaries such as “Taste the Waste” who knows where we could be now? 
With only a camera, an individual can generate lasting change. Here at ECU, we are dedicated to finding Europe’s best independent films, with 16 categories including documentaries, giving a platform to filmmakers generating change of their own. Are you the next Thurn Valentin?
By Seth Pollak

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