By Stephen Brown
BERLIN, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Just past midnight behind a Berlin supermarket, two youngsters with torches strapped to their woollen hats sift through rubbish bins for food that is still edible, load their bikes with bread, vegetables and chocolate Santas and cycle off into the darkness.
It is not poverty that inspires a growing number of young Germans like 21-year-old student Benjamin Schmitt to forage for food in the garbage, but anger at loss and waste which the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates at one-third of all food produced worldwide, every year, valued at about $1 trillion.
In environmentally aware, cost-conscious Germany, "foodsharing" is the latest fad, using the Internet to share food recovered from supermarket bins while it is still in good condition.
"Dumpster-diving" for society's cast-offs is a fast-growing phenomenon among sub-cultures in Europe and the United States and "freegans" - vegans who do not believe in paying for food - have long been sifting through supermarket wheelie bins.
But the "foodsharing" movement that has sprung up in cities like Cologne and Berlin brings efficiency and technical skills to the table in ways that make it uniquely German.
More than 8,200 people across Germany have registered to share food on the www.foodsharing.de website in just seven weeks of existence, said Berlin organiser Raphael Fellmer.
The website - which has an appropriately recycled-paper look - advises people where there are "baskets" and what is in them: organic sausages in Cologne or spaghetti and Darjeeling tea in Chemnitz. Members can log in or use a Smartphone app to see the address of nearby baskets or a pick-up time and place. They can then rate the transaction like ordinary online retailers.
For people who cannot afford the Internet, Fellmer has set up the first of what he hopes will be many "hot spots" where food can be picked up anonymously: a fridge at a covered market in Berlin's Kreuzberg, where anyone can help themselves to food.
"I've come for some bread rolls, just a couple," said Frank, an unemployed 47-year-old, who was alerted to the location of a hoard of fresh bread on the website and called at Fellmer's house.
Opening his rucksack, he helped himself from a bag of rolls that had been on sale at a nearby bakery till 7 p.m. the previous evening.
TASTE THE WASTE
Throwing away food is a rich country phenomenon but a poor country's problem.
Camelia Bucatariu, a policy expert on food waste at the FAO in Rome, said North American and European consumers waste 95-115 kg of food per capita a year, compared to just 6-11 kg in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. As economies develop, the level of food waste grows, said Bucatariu, who is Romanian.
The foodsharers' argument that the tonnes of food wasted in Germany could feed people in poor countries is not as simplistic as it sounds: less waste means less drain on resources in the producer countries and less upward pressure on prices, she said.
"It is not only wasting an apple, but wasting the resources embedded in that apple which may be produced outside of Europe," Bucatariu told Reuters. As well as economic damage there is the cost to the environment of using energy to grow food that ends up in a landfill site, emitting greenhouse gases like methane.
The FAO is studying how to change such behaviour and whether changes are needed to legislation on the retailers' "date marks" differentiating "Best By" from "Use By" - the latter being the date when food may start to become a biological hazard.
Fellmer is on a three-year-old "money strike": he does not earn or spend a euro and he, his wife and child eat only food that has been rescued from the bins.
A rangy 29-year-old in a baggy blue jumper with spiky blond hair and a pointed beard, he is already something of a German media phenomenon. On a recent visit, a TV documentary crew and a reporter from a local daily were crowded into his one-room flat.
He plonks on the table a packet of ginger biscuits for Christmas - from a batch of hundreds fished out of bins nearby - bearing a "use by" date which is still a month away. They taste fine, as do some red and gold-wrapped chocolate Santas.
The "use by" dates infuriate the foodsharers, many of whom were first inspired by the 2011 film "Taste the Waste" by their guru Valentin Thurm.
It documents waste ranging from farmers discarding tomatoes that are not red enough to bakeries burning the excess bread they made to keep the shelves looking full until closing time.
Fellmer's friend Schmitt was brought up in a "very food-conscious vegetarian household". His mother is a food chemist who advises him on hygienic ways to eat and share food from plastic sacks that he admits are sometimes "mushy" under your fingers in the dark.
Like Fellmer, he lives not in east Berlin, with its history of squats and communes, but in the leafy western suburb of Dahlem where he bin-dives under the noses of the German capital's most affluent residents.
Foodsharing appeals to the "hipster" culture of Berlin with its tradition of anti-establishment protest, Schmitt said.
The German crowdsourcing techniques could turn out to be "best practice" for reducing waste in other countries too, said the FAO's Bucatariu.
"Solutions may vary according to the culture, the context and to what access to food there is," she said. "But each and every one of us can do something." (Additional reporting by Fabrizio Bensch; Editing by Gareth Jones and Sonya Hepinstall)