Hard facts are often the hardest to stomach. But let’s start by trying to digest a few. Each year, UK households throw away more food than packaging. Seven million tonnes of it, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), more than half of which could actually have been eaten. In Britain, the foods we waste the most include bread, potatoes, salad and milk. We throw these and many other fresh fruits and vegetables away because we don’t use them in time, or we simply make too much food with them to consume.
Worldwide, the issue is even more alarming. According to a study by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), “roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year”. In the shadow of this statistic is another that estimates that there are over 800m undernourished people in the world today. One in nine people do not get enough food, yet the amount wasted in one year in the US alone would be enough to feed them all.
In 2012, UN under-secretary-general Achim Steiner launched the Think.Eat.Save initiative and addressed the interconnected nature of this global problem. The wider issue goes beyond the wasting of edible food and includes the vast expenditure of resources used in producing it. “In a world of seven billion people, set to grow to nine billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally and ethically,” he said. “Aside from the cost implications, all the land, water, fertilisers and labour needed to grow that food is wasted – not to mention the generation of greenhouse gas emissions produced by food decomposing on landfill and the transport of food that is ultimately thrown away. To bring about the vision of a truly sustainable world,” Steiner concluded, “we need a transformation in the way we produce and consume our natural resources.”
Our food waste problem exists on an incomprehensible scale, yet many of the actions to combat it are more straightforward than one might think. And, in the last few years, considerable effort has been made to try and design out waste from the way food is produced, distributed and sold, and even the way it is consumed. Last year was the European Year Against Food Waste, but 2015 could well be when we all start to see – and indeed make – some dramatic changes that might make Steiner’s vision of sustainability achievable.
Already voicing a new direction in the first few days of the new year was Jamie Oliver with news that UK supermarket giant Asda is about to start trialling the sale of ‘misshapen’ fruit and vegetables – produce previously deemed too unappealing aesthetically to sell – in a range called Beautiful on the Inside. A headline grabber, for sure, but also an indication that one of the biggest stores in the country is aware of the changing face of consumer demand as we come to terms with what we are throwing away. That so much produce is discarded before it even leaves its country of origin only goes to show how deep set the problems are. According to research for Think.Eat.Save’s ‘Reduce your Foodprint’ campaign, Kenyan farmers were found to be wasting up to 40% of what they grew – green beans for the export market, for example – because they didn’t fit the strict European and UK supermarkets’ cosmetic standards.
Other large British stores are changing tack as well, however. Sainsbury’s now has a Food Rescue website, for example, where customers can “share and find new ways to rescue leftover food”. Visitors tap in details of what food they have in the kitchen and a list of recipes appear using these ingredients (powered by Google). It also details how much food has been ‘rescued’ by not putting it in the bin – in grams and also as a monetary value. On a much larger scale, Tesco boasts surplus donation programmes across central Europe and is working with the food surplus charity FareShare in the UK. Since September 2012, this collaboration has seen over 1,000 tonnes of food diverted from Tesco websites and distribution centres and turned into 2.3m meals.
Similarly, WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste initiative cites particular examples of where brands are working to reduce the potential waste generated in consuming their products. The Heinz Beanz ‘fridge pack’ and Warburton’s smaller range of 600g loaves of bread tackle the issue of opening up produce but not finishing it; while The Co-operative and Morrisons supermarkets now provide storage advice on their free loose-produce bags. Marks & Spencers and Sainsbury’s also updated their on-package guidelines on when shoppers can freeze their products, ie any time before the expiration date, not just on the day of purchase. Prior to Asda’s new found belief in the beauty of its ugly fruit and veg, Intermarché in France launched a similar initiative across its 1,800 stores. The campaign, ‘Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables’ celebrates the ‘grotesque apple’, the ‘ridiculous potato’ and the ‘hideous orange’ and was formulated by ad agency Marcel, using photographs by Patrice de Villiers. Each apple or orange is as good for you and tastes just the same as its ‘regular’ version, the store reminds it customers, but is 30% cheaper. In the first two days that the range was available, it sold an average of 1.2 tonnes per store.
Beyond the mainstream supermarkets, the ‘social supermarket’ has also started to make its mark in Britain. Although very much an emerging movement, enterprises such as the Community Shop in South Yorkshire (and now also London) and The People’s Supermarket on Lamb’s Conduit Street in the capital (est. 2010) have shown that new models for the distribution of surplus food at reduced prices are possible. In France, these shops – Épiceries Solidaires – have been established since the late 1980s and, according to a study by Christina Holweg and Eva Lienbacher of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, the country has the highest density of social supermarkets, with an estimated 800 stores, and there are now more than 1,000 across Europe. Built partly on the model of the Park Slope Food Co-operative store in New York, The People’s Supermarket aims to provide its customers with healthy, sustainably produced food at affordable prices, and to engage with the issue of food waste generated by the grocery industry. It also turns food that is coming up to its sell-by-date into pre-prepared dishes – it has an on-site People’s Kitchen – which it then sells within the shop (composting all other food waste).
“Anyone can shop at The People’s Supermarket but by becoming a member, a person is entitled to certain benefits, rights and responsibilities,” co-founder David Barrie explains in the company’s publication, Secret Sauce. “Each member pays a £25 annual fee – which includes £1 for a cooperative share – and commits to giving four hours every four weeks to the running of the organisation. In return, members obtain a 20% discount on the cost of their shopping – or more during certain promotions – a share in the ownership of the store and engagement in a democratic process.” The mission of the shop is to “create a new kind of food retailer that addresses the needs of the local community and offers an alternative food buying network – one that supplies food produced by independents and local farmers to people living in cities.”
Aside from changing how we shop or where we buy our produce, what else can the individual consumer do? The FAO statistic mentioned above makes the distinction between food ‘loss’ and food ‘waste’: the former occurring largely during the production stages – harvesting, processing and distribution – the latter tending to take place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain. While most industrial-scale changes are beyond the day-to-day control of the consumer (pressure groups and campaigning of course have their effects), public opposition to the practices employed by supermarkets, for instance, can make a difference. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a Food Recovery Hierarchy which prioritises various actions which can help to prevent and divert wasted food – consumer action is a small but significant part of this equation. Accordingly, it states that while food waste can be used industrially, in the rendering of fats and oils into other products or biofuel, and can be composted or turned into renewable energy (known as anaerobic digestion), it can also be turned into food for animals and, of course, to feed people.
In Britain this last idea has resulted in initiatives that have sprung up in their hundreds (a list of ‘social innovations’ is at the EU Fusions project site) and these show how both local producers and consumers can make use of surplus food, or help facilitate its movement to where it is most needed – in doing so reducing the amount that ends up in landfill. FoodCycle, for example, is a nationwide volunteer-run project which utilises spare kitchen space to serve 3,000 meals a month, using almost 4,000kg of reclaimed surplus food. Then there are start-ups such as Rubies in the Rubble, a small company that makes chutney out of surplus vegetables obtained from Spitalfields Market in London, or the Vegetable Exchange Scheme at Keelham Farm Shop in Bradford which enables local gardeners and allotment holders with surplus fruit and veg to bring in excess produce to be sold in exchange for credit in the shop.
There’s a discernible movement here and it’s attracting attention. In a long piece in the second issue of US quarterly magazine Modern Farmer (fall 2013), writers Jesse Hirsch and Reyhan Harmanci suggested that “reducing food waste in the UK has become, well, cool,” with countless small-scale projects and initiatives harnessing the burgeoning interest in a range of lifestyle choices from sourcing local produce to sustainable living. Author and campaigner Tristram Stuart spoke at the launch of Think.Eat.Save in January 2012 and represents the new generation of producer and consumer trying to engage with the problem. His most well known project is the Feeding the 5,000 campaign where discarded but edible food is brought together and turned into a mass free lunch, the first one taking place in Trafalgar Square in London in 2009 (literally feeding 5,000 people). Similar events have since been staged in Bristol, Manchester and Amsterdam, while Stuart also received the Sophie Prize for his environmental work. (Another of his projects includes The Pig Idea, which campaigns to widen the types of catering waste that can be turned into swill and fed to pigs. Since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, the feed has been largely made from crops).
In the last decade, the issue of food waste in Britain has also become a highly-charged political one. Reliance on emergency food handouts via foodbanks has soared in the last two years and, in the last financial year, more than 900,000 people in the UK were given emergency food by the Trussell Trust, up from fewer than 130,000 in 2011-12. Ironically, the recession has actually meant that the amount of food wasted by UK households has fallen (according to WRAP, the 7.2m tonnes thrown away compares to 8.3m tonnes in 2006-07, a fall of 13%) yet the food that continues to be wasted within the wider UK food system simply isn’t being redirected to those who need it.
In the US, a company called Food Cowboy is already tackling this problem brilliantly. Co-founded by Roger Gordon, a lawyer, and his brother Richard, a “trucking entrepreneur instructor-trainer”, the company uses mobile technology to safely route surplus food from wholesalers and restaurants to foodbanks and soup kitchens instead of to landfills. Food is expensive to move, say Food Cowboy, and is more likely to be dumped rather than used; so its technology enables truckers with food cargo deemed unsellable to schedule drop offs with foodbanks on their route. “The warehouse manager just told you not to take the tomatoes off the truck – too ripe,” runs the example on the FC site. “So you post them on FoodCowboy.com, saying you’re heading for Abilene tomorrow at 7am. When you wake up, you’ve got messages from three food pantries along the way offering to take the tomatoes off your hands.” It’s a logical, beautifully simple idea where modern technology is now helping to shake up a significant part of the food system in America. “There’s no getting around the fact that we are wasteful – yet we are also caring and innovative,” runs the Food Cowboy mantra. “In the past, we lacked both the technology and the understanding to do more than just talk about hunger and waste, but now we have real solutions.”
In the UK, if we are to fulfil the target adopted by the European Parliament to halve food waste in the EU by 2025, then our food system needs rethinking.
That the system is made up of constituent parts – from industrial plants, supermarkets and social entrepreneurs, through to the humble compost bin – means that at every level change is possible. The benefits of attacking the food waste problem collaboratively will be evident when the system is brought back together again.
Useful resources: WRAP, wrap.org.uk; Love Food Hate Waste, lovefoodhatewaste.com; FeedBack, feedbackglobal.org; FoodCycle, foodcycle.org.uk; Think.Eat.Save, thinkeatsave.org; The People’s Supermarket, thepeoplessupermarket.org