Waste not, want not

EU countries waste an estimated 88 million tonnes of food every year, with UK households accounting for a sizeable proportion of that figure. MEPs recently voted in favour of new regulations to tackle the problem but declined to set binding targets. Is the issue getting the serious attention it deserves, or are policymakers, industries and households alike still merely nibbling around the edges?

A field full of discarded vegetables. Rathbone Investment Management

Just a few statistics are necessary to make plain the scale and absurdity of the issue of food waste. According to the United Nations, each year around 1.3 billion tonnes of food — approximately a third of the total amount produced globally for human consumption — is not eaten. EU countries waste 88 million tonnes annually, with UK households contributing 7.3 million tonnes. In the UK alone some 8.4 million people routinely cannot afford to eat. As the saying goes: you do the maths.

Humanity has been haunted by the prospect of having too many mouths to feed ever since Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798, expounding the theory that population growth must inexorably outstrip food production. Malthus may have famously neglected to take into account technology’s role in keeping us ahead of the curve, but the spectre of his prophecy of doom has never been entirely banished.

It is undoubtedly with us again now, with the UN forecasting that the global population will reach 9.7 billion in 2050 — a tenfold increase since Malthus’s day — and 11.2 billion by 2100. In light of these attention-grabbing predictions, some analysts have remarked that we are living through a “Malthus moment” comparable to that of the late 1960s, when American academic Paul R Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb dramatically raised wider awareness of finite resources and other environmental concerns.

Of course, it is perfectly feasible that science will continue to find solutions. We must sincerely hope so. Yet even firm faith in the march of progress cannot begin to justify the perverse truth that ours is a world in which the fear of hunger — not to mention the actuality of poverty — sits alongside the genuinely monumental wastage of food.

         

Policymakers, industries and households alike now recognise that food waste has reached epidemic proportions. This was far from the case even 20 years ago, when acknowledgment of the problem had barely trickled into the mainstream.

“Back then the idea that we had an awful lot of surplus food in the UK was only just emerging,” says Andy Street, one of the founding directors of SLR, a global environmental consultancy specialising in waste management, infrastructure and transportation. “We began to see an appreciation, certainly in London, that many people were going hungry and that we should try to establish some sort of positive link between food that might go to waste and people who might need it.”

For many years Street was a national trustee of FareShare, which supplies surplus food to organisations that provide meals for the vulnerable. Originally a spin-off from homeless charity Crisis, it now has partnerships with the major supermarket chains and national and regional food manufacturers, as well as with the Food and Drink Federation, and runs distribution centres around the country. In 2016 it saved 12,236 tonnes of food that would have gone to waste, which almost 5,600 fellow charities and other community groups were able to turn into 25.8 million meals.

Today Street still chairs FareShare South West, which he founded 10 years ago. Every week his team distributes food to around 150 organisations in Bristol alone. “The sector as a whole is really trying to deliver a mixed portfolio of offerings to ensure people don’t go hungry,” he says, “but there’s still a large tonnage of waste out there that could be avoided.”

Official statistics support this view. Earlier this year a report by WRAP, the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme, revealed household food waste in the UK rose by 4.4% between 2012 and 2015. Despite major campaigns to encourage consumers to rethink their shopping and recycling habits, we remain a “disposable society”.

“The finger is often pointed at the food industry, but in the end the system will always struggle,” says Street, who has served as a consultant to the likes of the World Bank and the European Commission. “We have a situation in the Western world where we insist on choice for every item we want to buy. It’s impossible for the food industry to satisfy that insistence and at the same time meet fundamental supply-and-demand considerations.

“That’s why waste is inevitable. It’s also why there’s never going to be a perfect solution. But there are still steps we can all take, particularly when the reality now is that there are even more people straining to make ends meet and put food on the table.”

Food waste is a global problem. According to the UN, per capita waste by consumers is as high as 115kg a year in Europe and North America and as much as 11kg a year in sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-eastern Asia.

It is also a multifaceted problem. Waste might result from the actions of producers, sellers or consumers. The UN estimates that 40% of losses in developing countries occur post-harvest or during processing, while in industrialised nations the same percentage is lost at retail or customer levels.

Commercial tonnages can be hard to calculate, not least in the face of the non-cooperation that sustainability expert Dr Julian Parfitt encountered in compiling a key WRAP report. “You would think that for such a massive issue everyone would be on board,” he said last year, “but obviously not.” Household tonnages are easier to quantify, but their significance is complicated by factors such as prices, wage levels, inflation and deflation — not to mention the question of whether waste is still edible and should therefore be classified as “avoidable”.

On 24 January this year, with all of the above presumably in mind, the European Parliament’s environment committee held a vote to determine EU policy on food waste for the coming decade and beyond. Amid no mean fanfare, the meeting concluded with a call for member nations to achieve a 50% reduction in the amount of food produced but not consumed by 2030.

Simona Bonafè, of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, was the MEP tasked with drafting the relevant text. Speaking immediately after the session, she said that in introducing the 50% target to the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package — a wide-ranging legal framework to foster sustainable growth — the committee had “fulfilled a moral obligation”.

Yet it is other obligations that could prove more telling over the longer term. For example, there is no real obligation for member nations to heed the committee’s call, which was precisely that: a call, a suggestion, a carefully worded appeal to a collective better nature. The 50% target is not binding.

“If we’re serious about slashing food waste,” Friends of the Earth warned when asked to comment on the announcement, “we need to stop aiming for change and make it happen.” The enduring puzzle, though, is how to make it happen. Where might pressure be applied to best effect?

Several countries, including Wales, have implemented strict legislation and statutory targets of their own; in France there are even food-waste education programmes for schools and businesses. Supermarkets and other retailers in the UK and elsewhere are increasingly responding to the challenge of utilising excess stock. Consumers are rediscovering their fondness for the sort of misshapen vegetables that were once doomed to end up in Esther Rantzen’s gleeful clutches on TV’s That’s Life. Behavioural economists are investigating the efficacy of “nudge” techniques — including tweaking the messaging around “best before” and “best by” dates. Even Michelin-starred chefs are dutifully showcasing the merits of fish heads, stale bread and bruised fruit. But are we seeing sufficient progress?

          

Campaigners in the UK believe more specific commitments would aid the quest for what Street calls a “transformational” breakthrough. “I’m a supporter of targets,” he says, “because they’re deliverable and measurable.” Drawing on his own research, Parfitt argues that many firms would greatly improve their contribution to the distribution effort merely by learning from the “basic organisational stuff” that others do well.

Crucially, most commentators agree it is time to stop playing the blame game. An issue of such magnitude requires a holistic approach, and this is likely to materialise only in light of an admission that everyone in the chain — from producer to consumer and at all points in between — is not only responsible for the present state of affairs but has a duty to address it. In the words of WRAP CEO Marcus Gover: “Every person in the UK can help reduce food waste.”

Despite record use of food banks, the fact is that the likeliest destination for millions of tonnes’ worth of cast-aside produce is still a landfill site or an anaerobic digestion facility. As Street says: “It’s important to accept everyone has a stake in this, because it just can’t be right that in a developed world we’re creating so much that’s fit for purpose and then simply throwing it away.”

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