The war on waste

2nd February 2023

While children starve, billions of tonnes of food are thrown away each year. David Burrows explores what’s being done about it

Around 811 million people are undernourished, with approximately 45% of deaths among children under five years old linked to under-nutrition. And yet 2.5 billion tonnes of food go uneaten every year. All this waste is an environmental disaster, too: if food waste were a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only the US and China. Consider, also, that food production is the main driver of biodiversity loss.

This is a scandal, with considerable waste on farms, during distribution, in restaurants and stores and, of course, at home. Consumers are the biggest wasters of all. “Too many people in the industrialised world think nothing of throwing produce in the bin,” wrote experts from the Consumer Goods Forum and World Benchmarking Alliance. “This should not be the norm and we must work together to change this.”

But how? At the 2022 annual meeting of Champions 12.3 – a voluntary coalition of leaders from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions and civil society dedicated to achieving Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3 to halve food loss and waste by 2030 – there was a feeling of “despair”, admits Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director (food loss and waste) at the World Resources Institute. Indeed, there has been no shortage of campaigns aimed at consumers wasting less food – including one of the most successful in Britain’s ‘Love food hate waste’, run by the charity Wrap – but “we still haven’t made the case about why it’s important and therefore motivated people sufficiently”, Goodwin, a former CEO at Wrap, tells Transform.

A throwaway culture

UK households are responsible for throwing away 4.5 million tonnes of edible food, worth an estimated £13.8bn. So is now, with food prices soaring, supply chains under strain and consumers more conscious of climate change than ever, the perfect time to make the case – to both business and consumers – for reducing food waste? Consumer consciousness of food waste has certainly risen dramatically. As a 2022 study by Capgemini shows: 56% of consumers in Europe, the US and Asia Pacific want to save costs by cutting food waste; and a similar percentage stated that they “care about world hunger and want to contribute towards alleviating it”.

“UK households are responsible for throwing away 4.5 million tonnes of edible food, worth an estimated £13.8bn”

Research by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), published in August, found UK citizens are more concerned about food waste (63%) than any other issue related to food (it trumps both the amount of sugar in products (59%) and animal welfare (56%)). Minimising food waste (40%) was also the joint most common change to eating habits that respondents had made in the past 12 months, while 31% said they were willing to try doing so in the coming year. People are all ears, but scientists and campaigners are still working on the best approach to engagement. The evidence on why food waste occurs remains “scattered”, noted researchers in Austria in a paper for the Journal of Cleaner Production. They listed all the potential reasons and interventions, from lack of awareness and acceptance of waste as a social ‘norm’ to poor meal planning and better management of leftovers. There is also a lot of confusion about date labels. To note, ‘best before’ relates to product quality whereas a ‘use by’ date is all about food safety (after this date foods are by definition deemed ‘unsafe’). “[…] there are plenty of food products with ‘use by’ dates when ‘best before’ would be more appropriate,” explains Anthesis technical director Julian Parfitt.

Saved from the bin

Some 10% of EU food waste could relate to confusion over dates; changes could offer some potentially low hanging fruit (and veg). For example, removing consumer-facing dates on uncut fresh produce could prevent around 7 million shopping baskets of perfectly edible food ending up in the bin, says a spokesperson for Wrap. Current laws don’t require a ‘best before’ label on such products. Consumers need help. In fact, they are demanding it. The Capgemini survey of 10,000 people showed 60% feel guilty about wasting food but want food companies to take joint responsibility: some 57% are disappointed in these companies for not caring enough about the issue. Even frontline employees have expressed anger and frustration at regular food wastage at the outlets where they work. “The amount of food waste I witness working at [a leading food retailer] … I can’t tell you how sad, depressed and angry it makes me,” said one employee quizzed by Capgemini’s experts.

“Some 10% of EU food waste could relate to confusion over [best before and use by] dates; changes could offer some low hanging fruit (and veg)”

A supply chain scandal

The Grocer, a leading food industry magazine, recently reported how food and drink brands could be “losing the war on supply chain food waste”. Progress to date is being undone by a combination of crises – cost of living, supply chain and geopolitical – as well as new data showing previous tonnages of the waste on UK farms (1.6 million tonnes, or 3.2% of all food harvested) could have been grossly underestimated.

Research just published by WWF and Tesco suggests 3 million tonnes of edible food – valued at £1.8bn and equivalent to 6.9 billion meals, or over 18 million meals a day – goes to waste on UK farms each year. Lilly Da Gama, WWF’s food waste expert, blames the inflexibility of the current food system to deal with gluts, as well as consumer expectations of what food should look like.

Farm waste is not currently within scope of the UK government’s proposals for mandatory reporting of food waste, which instead will focus on large food companies. It’s a missed opportunity but there is a sense that this regulation just needs to get over the line. It will help companies save cash and carbon. Also worth noting is that under separate proposals on buying standards for food and catering services, companies supplying the public sector could soon have to follow a ‘food waste prevention’ standard requiring them to measure and minimise food waste.

“I’m 100% convinced everyone should be doing this [measuring and reporting],” explains Mike Hanson, director of sustainable business at catering firm WSH, which has cut food waste by 42% since 2014, saving its clients more than £2m in disposal costs. Unfortunately, his business remains the exception rather than the rule. Capgemini notes that organisations can tap into the “negative cash mountain” that’s available from food waste prevention to not only lower costs but enhance sustainability and capitalise on new revenue-generating opportunities emerging from the redistribution of surplus food. Tesco has launched what it refers to as a ‘Tinder’ platform to match up suppliers that can turn one another’s waste into profits. Beetroot peelings perfect for cattle feed was the first listing.

Hungry for change

More and more food is also being redistributed for human consumption, but charities such as FareShare continue to struggle to meet rising demand. It is often cheaper for farmers to waste food (and send it to anaerobic digestion), than feed it to people, explained FareShare CEO Lindsay Boswell during the food security inquiry run by MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee. “I supply 9,500 frontline charities and community groups and I am not meeting the demand of any of those 9,500,” he said, and yet “we have such huge quantities of good-quality surplus food”.

FareShare says demand has doubled and 73% of that is from people who have never asked for help before. Diversion of surplus food, as charities will recognise, is not a solution to poverty but the short-term need is desperate as the financial situation for many families deteriorates. The FSA’s tracking of public attitudes towards food is already showing how the cost of living crisis, for thousands of people, is creating food safety issues rather than encouraging savvy, sustainable choices. Those who are food insecure are reporting “risky food behaviours”, with 37% buying food and eating it after its use by date. That’s “not a good idea”, says FSA deputy director of food policy Natasha Smith. “It’s great that people are trying to minimise food waste, but there are lots of ways to do that without gambling with your health,” she explains. Thousands are being left with little choice. These are dire times that require drastic measures. The story on food waste is shameful but it is the scandal we must all shout about and solve together.

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher

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