“We have to get the incentives right”

8 Aug 2022

About the fight against food waste: What policies do people in their everyday lives support and are they ready to accept costs? – Interview with political scientist Lukas Rudolph from EINSICHTEN magazine

A third of all food goes to waste. Worldwide, this amounts to around 1.6 billion tons per year – with serious consequences for the environment and society. Political scientist Lukas Rudolph from LMU Munich studies what people are willing to do about it. Which policies do they support and are they ready to accept costs?

Food waste

Food waste on a german weekly market

In the countries of the Global Nord most of food is lost at the end of the production chain.

© IMAGO / Shotshop

We live in an affluent society. Is food waste a phenomenon of our time?

Rudolph: Yes and no. According to recent studies, 44 percent of food is lost in the countries of the Global South – primarily at the start of the production chain. This is for example due to a lack of storage and cooling facilities. In human history, this kind of loss has always been there. The situation is different in countries of the Global North, where food is wasted at the end of the chain. People can afford to do without food they throw away to buy something new the next day. We allow ourselves the luxury of making that choice in our rich society.

Waste also occurs on the way to the consumer: irregularly shaped vegetables, products that are too close to their sell-by date …

This is also a phenomenon of our time, food being wasted for cost or marketing reasons. In the past, this would not have happened. You only have to think about the stories of our grandparents.

Which consequences does food waste have from a global perspective?

Food waste has a whole range of consequences: around eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food waste. This is a relevant part of the climate problem. But food waste is also associated with overuse of water and land, and the loss of biodiversity. And the social effects are just as important. Food waste increases demand, which has effects on what people can afford in other countries.

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Marketing for forked carrots

Does this imply that regulations against food waste can have the effect of reducing food prices, and not only creates red tape and costs?

It’s not quite as simple as that. In terms of the economy as a whole, reducing food waste would be very beneficial. Above all, because it would reduce environmental impacts with all their negative knock-on effects. The challenge is to get incentives right, such that the actors respond with food waste reduction. Prices seem unable to do this. Companies and households do not bear the environmental costs and social costs directly. So they do not necessarily benefit directly from food waste reductions. Companies that produce food have to invest, for example, in technologies for better food storage, or in marketing for selling the forked carrot. And individually, these costs can exceed the savings from avoiding food waste.

Shouldn’t lower expenditure on food be enough to convince private households?

Savings could certainly be an incentive for private households. In Switzerland, for example, food waste leads to additional expenses for the average household of around 2,000 Swiss francs per year. But to reduce this waste, you must be willing to heat up yesterday’s dinner or eat food that is past its use-by date. It seems to be the case that cost savings are not enough of an incentive for people to do these things.

So is government regulation the only game in town?

Through the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the state community has set itself the target of halving food waste by 2030. All industrialized nations have signed up to these goals. To achieve them, all layers of society have to do their part. But at the level of private households – that is to say, for individual behavioral changes – it is much more difficult to use regulations as a lever compared to the company level. France has passed a law, for example, that prohibits supermarkets from throwing away edible food. Instead, it must be given away to charity. In Germany, by contrast, dumpster diving is illegal. This could be easily changed by lifting the prohibition. Or supermarkets could be forced to donate the food to charity like they do in France.

In 2022, you published a study with your Swiss colleagues in the journal Nature Food, where you looked at the willingness of Swiss citizens to accept higher food costs as the price of such regulations. What was the main finding of your study?

The take-home message was: Swiss citizens are, on average, willing to support strict regulations if the policy is well designed. If companies are required to meet ambitious targets, if broad sections of the economy are regulated, if there is transparent and independent monitoring – then citizens are also willing to accept higher prices of up to five percent.

The waste that ends up in a composting plant in Münster:

“We allow ourselves the luxury of making that choice in our rich society”, says Rudolph.

© Dominik Asbach / Laif

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As recently as 2018, the Fair Food Initiative was rejected by Swiss voters. Is acceptance not so high after all when push comes to shove?

The Fair Food Initiative was about making the value chain as a whole more sustainable. So the emphasis was quite different than the question we investigated. The picture the media painted of the referendum, and which was amplified by the no-campaign, gave the impression that the initiative failed on account of the anticipated price increases. Studies show, however, that this was not necessarily the main reason for rejecting the proposition. For example, the fact that not all parties were behind it was an important factor. If the parties had been united, this would have communicated a social norm.

Would this have had an effect?

According to our results, yes. In our study on food waste, we varied experimentally whether respondents were given the message that reducing foodwaste is a social norm or not. Such a norm exists in relation to food waste: There is a national consensus that we should reach the Sustainable Development Goals. If this social norm is clearly communicated, it increases people’s acceptance for strict measures to meet this obligation, including personal contributions.

What influence does the high standard of living in Switzerland have on the result of the study? Do people with lower income take different decisions?

Certainly we need additional studies in other countries, but we would also need them of course if we had carried out the study in Germany. You cannot just extrapolate from one country to another. That being said, the general attitude to environmental regulations in Switzerland is very similar to that in other developed nations. I suspect, therefore, that the results would be similar in Germany or France. As regards the heterogeneity of effects – that is to say, comparing people with low income to better earners – this was outside the scope of our study. But we can say that price increases disproportionately affect poorer households. And we could therefore surmise that there might be lower acceptance. For us, the average preference of Swiss citizens was relevant, as this is what carries the day politically.

Aside from income, education no doubt also plays a role in forming opinion …

We investigated this in the course of other studies, where we looked at problematic aspects of global supply chains: environmental pollution and social problems arise primarily in countries of the Global South, not over here. This is not on many people’s radar, and even less so among people with a low level of education. We divided our study participants randomly into groups, informing some about these issues and not mentioning them to others. The experiment revealed that giving participants information has a causal effect on their understanding of the issue and its consequenes. However, this has no relevant influence on the policies that people support. There is, however, a strong relationship between basic values such as concern for the environment and support. But this need not necessarily be related to education.

What do you do personally to avoid food waste?

I’m strongly influenced by my upbringing. My parents were environmentally conscious and instilled these values in me – such that in my own family home today, almost nothing is thrown away. Ultimately, this means that Papa is responsible for leftovers and has to eat the same thing two days in a row. Whether you are happy to do this or not depends of course on personal preferences and boundaries. But we decided that we want it that way – and there are also advantages for our family budget of course.

Interview: Stefanie Reinberger

Lukas Rudolph

"Clearly communicating the social norm against food waste creates acceptance even for strict measures,” says Lukas Rudolph. | © LMU

Dr. Lukas Rudolph is Senior Research Fellow (Akademischer Rat) in the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science at LMU and Affiliated Research Associate in the Center for Comparative and International Studies at ETH Zurich.

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