Maggie Jones on the scandal of food waste and the need for the UK government to act now
Food waste has huge global ramifications. With population growth and the expansion of western-style diets, demand for food is expected to increase by 60-70% come 2050. This will have major impacts on food security, prices and the environment.
Yet one third of food is wasted annually – valued at some £600bn. Sometimes, it hasn’t even reached the consumer but is being wasted at earlier stages of production. And it is happening at a time when people are still starving around the world and crops are failing – itself not aided by global warming. Thankfully, the UN have now recognised the need for urgent action and have agreed a Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030. Not enough but at least a start.
Here in the UK, we are waking up to the scandal of food waste. The excellent Love Food Hate Waste campaign, targeted at consumers, has also highlighted the unnecessary cost – around £700 per household. As a result, domestic food waste has fallen by 21% since 2007.
Sadly, the efforts of consumers have not been matched by the food industry which is responsible for over half of all food wasted across the supply chain. For example, an estimated 20-40% of all UK fruit and vegetables are rejected by supermarkets before they even reach the shops.
Often this is good quality food left to rot in fields when shop orders are amended or cut at short notice. At other times edible produce is rejected because it does not meet a perfect size or shape, as artificially determined by retailers. Revelations of these practices quite rightly make consumers angry as good food is thrown away whilst people queue at food banks or go hungry. Farmers in developing countries meanwhile, such as Kenya can be forced to waste up to 50% of their produce because of the strict supermarket contract conditions on which they rely.
Food waste in the UK and the stranglehold that big supermarkets have over their suppliers has been exposed respectively by celebrity chef campaigners Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. Plus the appalling way these suppliers are treated was also highlighted recently by a ruling by the Grocery Code Adjudicator against Tesco – with some in the supply chain waiting years to be paid.
Despite all of this, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy’s Food Waste Bill – published in the Commons last week – has not even been guaranteed the respect of a Second Reading by the government.
Kerry’s Bill also seeks to address the scandal of unsold surplus food being thrown away by supermarkets. Whilst some are addressing this issue, only 2% gets redistributed to charities. The charity FareShare has done some tremendous work in this area, estimating that if the UK diverted just 25% of its unsold food for distribution it would save the voluntary sector £250 million each year. And a lead on this has already been taken in France, whose government recently voted to require supermarkets to give away unsold food which has reached its sell-by date.
So there is a great deal more the UK government should be doing – something I will press this week in a Lords debate on the issue. At its heart, we need to prevent food being wasted in the first place, by ensuring that the food produced has a market and will be eaten. Then, if any surplus occurs, it should be distributed to charities to feed the hungry. If all else fails, the final options should be diversion to livestock feed, anaerobic digestion or compost. It should be considered an insult to those who cannot afford to feed themselves of their families that edible food ends up in landfill.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow DEFRA Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 3rd February 2016