Opinion: Time to get serious about food wastage

License Some rights reserved by szczelIt may not seem a naturally risky topic, but the rate at which we are wasting food is nothing less than scandalous. From gross inefficiencies at the heart of modern food production to domestic habits, food waste is the quiet scandal of the decade.

A recent BBC article reported that up to half of the food we produce is simply thrown away. Worldwide. The waste of North Americans and Europeans, says another report, could feed the world’s hungry several times over.

This makes for uncomfortable reading on all sides. Those on the political right are naturally suspicious of criticisms of the free market. Those on the left may find the implications of these studies unpalatable.

The numbers are breathtaking – not least the emotive juxtaposition of a billion underfed people with a billion suffering from ‘over-nutrition’. On paper it looks intensely inefficient, seems morally repugnant and is adding unnecessarily to our already out-of-control emissions. So, what can we do about it? This depends, of course, on where the waste occurs.

The first ‘wave’ of wastage is during production. “In-situ culls” of crops occur in the field and involve rejection of produce that doesn’t look very nice.

If market prices shift drastically – as oft they do – it can even be cheaper for farmers to let entire crops rot rather than harvest them. This ‘pre-harvest shrink’ is an unfortunate feature of the free market. In the US, volunteers pick some produce and distribute it to food banks – but this is near-impossible to institutionalise.

And this all occurs before industrial processing. For an average person’s daily 2,000 kcal, an additional 600kcal gets wasted here. If crops are used to produce animal feed for meat or dairy, that figure doubles to 1,200 kcal.

A second ‘wave’ of waste happens in-store. Here, says campaigner Tristam Stewart, is where activism really kicks in. Consumer pressure can change supermarket behaviour. M&S reduced their food waste by a whopping 40% over a three-year period after being persuaded to discount near-expiry stock.

Organisations such as Foodcycle and Stewart’s own group, Feeding the 5,000, are another way to get involved in campaigning. The transparent reporting of waste at this stage is a crucial campaign goal, says Stewart.

The final ‘wave’ of wastage happens at home. Huge quantities of food are bought and them simply thrown away. Incredibly, over half – 4.4m tonnes annually – is still perfectly edible. Vegetables, especially salad, are often thrown out unnecessarily. Much of this ‘excess food’ could be saved simply by using common sense, adjusting cooking habits and employing a bit of imagination.

So, to ask the question again: what can we do about it? The picture is very different in other parts of the world, but here in the West, there are inefficiencies at every stage of the production line.

During harvest, stock is wasted due to aesthetics or market prices. This quite simply needs government regulation at national (or supranational) level. That, in turn, must be supported – indeed, demanded – by the public.

At the point of sale, we need businesses to take a lead. Supermarkets can reduce waste by reducing prices close to sell-by dates; charities can take stock that would be otherwise disposed of and distribute it. Our role, as consumers, is to tell businesses this matters to us. One need only look at Fairtrade to see the impact consumer demand makes. We need to keep the pressure on.

Finally, we need to become more conscientious about how we buy, store and cook our food. The humble shopping list can make a remarkable difference. Imaginative cooking saves money and produces delicious meals. Sensible storage can stop bread, fruit and vegetables from going off.

In short, shocking as the scale of waste is, it’s a scandal that really does start at home. It’s a scandal that we can combat through the daily choices we make. It’s also an issue which we – and only we – can really push up the political and corporate agenda.

The scandal may be global, but overcoming it really is our responsibility as individuals – and we might even save money and have some fun in the process.

* Sam Lawes is a member of Liberal Youth who is currently working in Turkey.

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  • Frank, imagine you’re right – though it is igniting debate & activism at universities around Europe as well. Grounds for optimism, perhaps.

  • Quite right. I have two staggeringly unpopular suggestions:

    1) Eat less meat. The IME report you link to is very clear on how big a role meat consumption plays in food efficiency and land use. Also see http://fullfact.org/factchecks/almost_half_world_UK_food_wasted-28702 which suggests half the global food ‘wastage’ you refer to is a result of meat being so much less efficient (the kind of meat is also important).

    2) Levy full VAT on food. I imagine increasing the price of food wouldn’t perfectly translate into people being more careful with their use, but it’s bound to partially reduce waste. I’m not sure why we should be subsidising rich British families to buy food that they then throw in the bin. Targeting the cash raised at those who need it (to spend as they wish) is a much better anti-poverty measure.

    Also see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14925046 – Scrap food sell-by dates, government urges manufacturers

    And – to reduce emissions – if we do waste food, it should go to producing energy through anaerobic digestion, rather than landfill.

  • Good points Adam (full VAT on food would be very unpopular!) Eating less meat is absolutely a good shout, as is proper ‘waste’ disposal, although animal feed or composting is more efficient than anaerobic digestion, from what I’ve read.

  • Here’s a question for you!

    If you recycle the food as compost, is it actually wasted? Or must it all pass through a human digestive system?

  • Peter Hayes 24th Jan '13 - 5:30pm

    There should be a ban on sell by date and use by date and replaced by probably unsafe to eat by date if in the average over heated home. We had just enjoyed a soup best before 04/01/13 but kept in the fridge it was fine, but we are baby boomers, brought up before the current obsession with germs etc so our immune system is better trained.

  • CP
    Eat fresh vegetables use the peelings for compost.
    Pickle unused cabbage-Kimchi yum yum!

  • Ian Sanderson 25th Jan '13 - 8:59am

    “If you recycle the food as compost, is it actually wasted? ”
    Even if you grew in yourself, you might have devoted some resources to it, such as land, water and fertiliser (including organic) and storage.
    If you bought it from someone else there will be further resources – “food miles” and storage, which you aren’t recycling.

    Not an argument against composting or other forms of recycling but they are not a method of winding back the clock – only steps on the way.

  • As Ian suggests, composting is a lot better than landfill – but it doesn’t discount the energy, water, transport and chemicals put into producing food, so it’s far better not to let things get to that point.

    Coming back to imagination & resourcefulness in the kitchen – here’s 17 things to do with stale bread, for example! http://www.wisebread.com/17-uses-for-stale-bread

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