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Food waste: beyond fridge guilt to a sustainable system

The food system is perhaps the most vital component of our modern industrialised world. Without food in shops, it’s fair to say society would unravel in a matter of days. The food industry is in many ways…

An estimated 30-50% of food produced worldwide is wasted, and ends up only fit for the birds. Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

The food system is perhaps the most vital component of our modern industrialised world. Without food in shops, it’s fair to say society would unravel in a matter of days.

The food industry is in many ways a success story, an achievement to marvel at. It provides the majority of people on this planet with life sustaining, affordable food in the places they reside. As a species, we have largely broken free of the burden of food production, hunting and foraging that preoccupied our ancestors and are able to devote our time and resources to other aspects of human activity that bring progress. And yet the system we all rely on is incredibly inefficient.

Leaving to one side the negative environmental impact, the estimated one billion people who are under-nourished and further one billion overweight, it has been estimated that between 30 and 50% of all food produced worldwide is not eaten - it never makes it to the table.

In the past it could be argued that this material inefficiency was affordable in an era of cheap food. But we are already experiencing the beginning of a new era of stress on the food system as demand grows and environmental limits are reached.

Global food prices continue to rise, at a rate beyond the cyclical peaks and troughs inherent in the system. Global population growth will see a further two billion mouths to feed over the next 40 years. Complicating matters is the emergence of a voracious demand for meat from growing economies such as China and India, and serious uncertainties around global warming.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the solution to this impending crisis is to eat what’s in the fridge before it expires. But while there has been a lot of attention paid to consumer food waste recently, the majority of wastage actually occurs elsewhere.

According to a 2011 study from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, approximately two thirds of food waste in Europe occurs in the supply chain between production and retail. In developing nations this proportion can be far greater - a report this year by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers on the subject highlighted how some countries in South East Asia can lose as much as 80% of their rice crop to wastage.

In the UK, recycling charity Wrap estimates that some 15 million tonnes of food waste is created each year. Of this, 7.2 million tonnes occurs in the home with the vast majority of the rest accruing in the supply chain.

The cause of these losses and their solutions vary. It’s hard to avoid crop failure due to poor weather conditions. Human error, even within high-tech food supply chains, is hard to eliminate. But at the other end of the scale is wastage in the name of consumer choice.

Critics argue supermarket chains' refusal to accept cosmetic blemishes and variations in shape sees perfectly edible, nutritious food binned. Although reliable statistics are thin on the ground, there can be little doubt that the quest for aesthetic uniformity, the bewildering range of food available in large retailers and overzealous “best before” and “use by” labels leads to wastage that is entirely avoidable.

Let’s wrap this up

Tackling this requires a multi-pronged approach. Consumers undoubtedly have a responsibility to reduce their personal food waste levels through making better decisions when buying and planning meals. This needs to be supported by consumer education and better labelling. Both government and industry have a role in this, as do groups such as WRAP and This is Rubbish.

But government and industry have to practice what they preach. Public sector catering in the UK in schools and hospitals is a billion-pound industry with its own environmental burden. This provides an opportunity to demonstrate the business benefits of a more sustainable approach.

However it’s the food industry that is crucial to reducing waste, more than any other group, because of major retailers' market power and direct relationship with consumers. Initiatives such as the Courtauld Commitment provide encouragement, but progress is hampered by lack of data and transparency.

The economic crisis illustrates how the era of voluntary agreements and self-regulation has become redundant, dangerously so, in the face of the economic, environmental and social challenges facing Britain and the world.

The recent horsemeat scandal is an illustration of the lack of transparency in the food sector. Industry food waste practices could prove just as repulsive to consumers but, as it stands, the lack of reporting requirements limit public understanding and therefore genuine pressure on industry to change.

Mandatory reporting (as called for by This Is Rubbish’s “Counting What Matters” report launched this week) would empower market forces - that sacred cow of government rhetoric - allowing consumers to move beyond fridge guilt to positively support a more efficient and sustainable food system.

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3 Comments sorted by

  1. Hattie Parke

    Environmental Consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting

    It is one of the ironies of modern society that both retail food waste and food poverty are on the rise at the moment. I completely agree that more robust data and transparency is needed. Understanding the scale of the current problems surrounding food waste in the supply and distribution chain will also identify how and where we can reduce food waste and move up the food waste hierachy.

    I've considered these issues, and whether the food industry should be paying for voluntary sector food redistribution networks here: http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=1790

    report
    1. Adrian Morley

      Food-Smart City Project Manager at Harper Adams University

      In reply to Hattie Parke

      Indeed. That's a really interesting link. If retailers had to make their waste levels openly available (and meaningful) then presumably the shame that makes them currently hide this activity would go and opportunities for its redistribution to those in need would open up.

      report
  2. Doug Robertson

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thanks for opening the dialog. In North America we are guilty of leading the world in waste. Some recent attempts here try to match the food surplus & waste to the needs of impoverished using organized non-profits. Turns out there are food waste profiters abusing the non-profit structures to their gain and impoverished losses. Innovators continue to search for work arounds, where business and non-profits can benefit from their relationships on a grander scale. Technology may be the game changer, as the producer of waste, logistics handlers, and the users of the waste can be connected in real time. That reality is getting closer I think. Landfills aren't the answer.

    report