The UN claims that Food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand of the worlds growing population. However, most of the worlds productive farmland is already in use, so increased food production will require extending intensive farming methods with greater use of pesticides and fertilizers leading to the increased release of greenhouse gases. Paradoxically, UK government policy is attempting to deal with both of these problems simultaneously with plans to “boost food production in Britain and reduce its impact on the environment”. Is this realistic, or is there an easier way?
Calculations based on waste and calorie intake suggest that the UK has access to at least double the food necessary for adequate nutrition. Since farming, retail and eating habits are probably similar throughout the developed world, this implies there is no real food crisis in terms of the amount produced, only in how it is consumed. Therefore, a better strategy must be to focus on reducing food waste rather than growing more. This would minimise the impact on the environment, reduce food expenditure, and achieve better food security with a healthier lifestyle for the population.
Using our present methods, significant food waste occurs at all stages of the food industry. The first waste stream occurs at the production stage due to damage and accidental harvesting through weather, pestilence and machinery, resulting in unsuitable quality and appearance. In storage, losses can be attributed to pests and micro-organisms causing reductions in the nutritional values and edibility of food. Further losses are generated during processing and packaging due to the handling of food and by shrinkage in weight or volume. Whilst foods which contradict safety standards need to be removed from the food chain, such regulations can conflict with efforts to reuse food waste such as in animal feed. The amount of food wasted before arriving at the retailer is unknown but may amount to at least 20% of that farmed.
Of the food which arrives at the retailer 5% is wasted due to exceeding ‘use by’ dates and package damage. Dr Martin Caraher, an expert in food policy at City University in London, says: “Use-By dates are in retailers financial interests. If customers throw food away, they have to replace it by buying even more. Use-By dates can be a happy accident for them”.
The largest waste stream is by the consumers themselves who throw away 30% of all preventable wasted purchased food. Whilst a proportion of this is discarded by being left uneaten on the plate or unserved, much food is rejected for being unfresh or beyond the ‘use by’ date of the package label. Whilst this could be blamed on poor domestic management, consumers are heavily influenced by marketing practices, and have limited control over purchase quantities and the packaging of food, which are the responsibility of the food industry.
Finally, including children it is estimated that we eat on average about 2320 Kcal/day/person in the UK. This, could be an underestimate, yet is still 10% more calories than is necessary for an average persons recommended intake based on the UK age distribution and gender and reference nutrient intake tables. In addition to placing extra strain on the food supply chain, this can lead to a variety of health problems for individuals who eat far more than their required intake.
In total, according to these calculations only about 45% of the food actually farmed is actually necessary for adequate nutrition, and most of the remaining 55% of waste is preventable, amounting to the equivalent of 72 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year in the UK. This is approximately 10% of the total UK output and almost as much as its entire transport system!
There have been previous initiatives to reduce food waste. The official UK government line is that “most of the major supermarket retailers in the UK….have committed to work with the Government’s waste-reduction programme (WRAP) to identify ways they can help us, their customers, to reduce the amount of food thrown away”.
However, are we taking a too lenient line with the food industry? The Sustainable Development Commission thinks so. It condemned targets set by WRAP as “unambitious and lacking urgency”. with multi-buy promotions helping to fuel waste and obesity in Britain. Mr Lang, who is also professor of food policy at City University, London said that three years ago, the government-funded WRAP left it up to supermarkets to find voluntary “solutions to food waste” in an agreement dubbed the Courtauld Commitment. “The Government is frankly not using its leverage adequately. It really should toughen up on Courtauld, which must be enforced because this is ludicrous”. An 18-month study, which found that “too many supermarket practices are still unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable”, said Wrap should adopt a “more aspirational approach to reducing waste in food retail by setting longer-term targets and [supporting] a culture of zero waste”.
All this suggests that voluntary regulations are either ineffective or far too slow to take effect. The bottom line is that waste is endemic to contemporary economic ideology because corporate obligations require them to increase growth and profits and an effective means of achieving this is by encouraging excessive public consumption. Until these objectives are replaced with ones that are more beneficial to society than businesses, any significant progress in meeting sustainable targets without imposing strong regulations will be very limited.
Based on this information it is possible to draw up a list of obligations that could be imposed on the food industry to significantly reduce food waste.
1 Retailers should be obliged to stock a proportion of food, that would be presently rejected due to appearance, but otherwise meets safety standards. This could be marketed as cheap ‘sustainable’ produce in addition to, or possibly in preference to expensive organic foods which are of dubious health and environmental benefits.
2 Hotels, Restaurants and other communal places of eating could purchase this sustainable produce to meet their environmental targets. The food could can be re-cut for aesthetic value or simply merged with other foods in pies & stews etc.
3 Retailers should be obliged to sell all stocked food by a ‘use by’ date or pay a tax that should be set high enough to discourage waste. One method of achieving this would be to introduce a variable pricing mechanism based on the demand throughout the sale period which is gradually reduced to near zero by the use by date.
4 Damaged packets should be re-labelled as low carbon pet food or animal feed if this doesn’t endanger safety, or if this is not possible, biodegraded using composting and anaerobic digestion to produce methane for fuel and enrich agricultural soil.
5 To avoid consumer waste, all foods should be purchasable in smaller amounts at a constant unit price and separated into compact sealable units to ensure they are kept fresh as long as possible. This would avoid excess buying which often leads to waste.
6 Retail policies that lead to excess buying should be discouraged. These include moving items around the store and placing essentials at the rear of store to encourage coverage and residence time. Retail promotion and prominent positioning that encourages purchasing should also be reserved for sustainable products.
7 When new products are introduced small samples should always be offered, so as to avoid buying large quantities of unwanted food.
8 Unnecessary purchases and impulse buying could be minimised by avoiding trips to the retailer altogether through Internet ordering and cost competitive and environmental delivery schemes such as the COAST system suggested in this report. This purchasing system would help consumers manage shopping more efficiently via web based shopping lists, by anticipating when a new item is needed from the date and their purchasing history. This system would reduce waste and excess eating by minimising any excess food lying around the home.
9 Restaurants and fast food outlets should always offer the option of smaller portions with a proportionate reduction in price. Private servings are obviously more difficult to reduce; however, promoting a general culture of rejecting waste and extravagance should be nurtured amongst the public.
10 Health advice needs to consider promoting more durable foods in preference to perishable fruit and vegetables if these offer a more practical, equally nutritious and ‘low carbon’ alternative.
11 Temperature sensitive strips could be placed on selected packages that warn the consumer if the fridge thermostat has been set too low.
12 Set tough annual targets for reduced waste throughout the food industry
These measures should increase the worlds food supply by reducing food waste rather than increasing production with a corresponding benefit for the environment.
Let’s not be reticent about confronting businesses and politicians with these ideas if they claim to be genuinely concerned about minimising waste, and ensure we are not fobbed of with offers of voluntary measures and green wash!