Who’s chasing the waste? Finding the balance in food waste
The issue of food waste is shaping up to be one of the greatest moral dilemmas of our time. Charities, local authorities, waste management companies and even utilities are all chasing the waste at a time of dwindling resources and increasing hunger.
The scale of the problem is well documented and the facts are stark. Research from the Think Eat Save campaign from the Food & Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) shows that one third of the world’s food is wasted from farm to fork, which is equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually. At the same time, population increases mean that there are more hungry mouths to feed than ever, with demand for food set to grow by 70% by 2050. The impact of our changing climate on energy and water needed to grow food adds yet more pressure. Demand for electricity is set to double by 2050 and water supplies will only satisfy 60% of demand – yet 70% of the world’s water is needed to grow food
Not surprisingly, reducing food waste is seen as the key strategy to increase food availability and alleviate poverty while reducing pressure on ecosystems, climate and water. According to the World Resources Institute, globally, food loss and waste accounts for:
- roughly 3,300–5,600 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions - almost equivalent to the amount of emissions from energy consumption by the United States in 2011.
- approximately 173 billion cubic meters of water consumption per year, which represents 24% of all water used for agriculture.
- 198 million hectares per year of cropland and 28 million tonnes of fertiliser to grow - an area about the size of Mexico
Policy makers across the globe are lining up in support of setting food waste reduction targets at national, local and organisational levels. The EU 2020 “Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe” sets a milestone of reducing edible food waste by 50% by 2020 and is calling for 2014 to be designated the European Year against Food Waste, with food waste prevention targets set by member states as part of the Waste Framework Directive. In June this year, business leaders, academics and policy makers gathered at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) food chain network to discuss challenges in measuring reduction as there is currently no universal definition of food wastage and data is currently classified in over 150 different ways (loss/waste, avoidable/unavoidable, edible/ inedible, weight/ calories, value/volume at each stage of the supply chain).
Here in the UK, we are ahead of the game. WRAP has measured the scale of food waste for a number of years and is soon to release new data. In 2009/10, the estimated 18.4 million tonnes of waste generated within the UK food and drink supply chain and households cost around £17 billion, with almost 2/3 generated in households and 27% within food and drink manufacture. Great progress has been made through the Courtauld Commitment and Love Food Hate Waste campaigns, preventing around 1.1 million tonnes of food waste (worth £2.5bn), changing the behaviours of over 2 million people and saving local authorities at least £22m in disposal costs.
Reducing waste in the first place is clearly a win-win all round, central to Government policy to drive action at the top of the waste hierarchy pyramid. But what comes next? Therein lies the dilemma. There are increasing demands for food re-use which often conflict. The food use hierarchy advises that unavoidable surplus food, still in date and perfectly edible, should be fed firstly to people in need, then to animals, moving down the food chain to create renewable energy or bio-fertiliser from residual waste. Instead, we’re witnessing a veritable food fight.
At a time of severe cuts to welfare, food poverty has risen rapidly in the UK. Research by the Centre for Economic and Business Research commissioned by Kellogg’s suggests that around 5 million people are in food poverty in the UK, while Tesco recently released data showing that 1 in 5 people “skip meals, rely on others for food or go without so children can eat”. Around 500,000 people are now reliant on food aid from charities and numbers are rising fast.
This is where charities such as FareShare come in. FareShare is working towards an ambitious vision to use all food surplus in the supply chain to eradicate food poverty. As the UK’s only charity fighting the underlying causes of hunger and redistributing food waste to over 700 local charities across the UK, FareShare is in a unique position. By ensuring good food is not wasted, it turns the environmental problems associated with food waste into a solution, feeding thousands of people every day.
Yet despite the high profile and very welcome commitments of many leading retailers and brands, the amount of food re-distributed to organizations such as FareShare to feed to people is tiny compared to the amount that is diverted to feed the burgeoning demand for energy from waste.
Government policy has driven the growth of Anaerobic Digestion to help meet the target of 15% of energy from renewables by 2020. Since the AD Strategy was published in 2011, the number of AD plants has doubled and there are now 106 plants up and running (outside of the water industry) processing around 5.1 million tonnes of food waste every year
So whilst charities such as FareShare are trying to source surplus food waste to beat food poverty, many local authorities and waste management companies are chasing this same food waste to be fed into the plants they have built, creating a moral battle: just who has the right to food waste?
All too often, the overarching food waste hierarchy pyramid is being ignored. There are examples of local campaigns for food waste collections which show food waste bins adorned with stickers saying ‘Feed Me’; essentially encouraging food waste and twisting government policy away from getting the most energy out of waste, into getting more waste into energy recovery – two very different ideas. Indeed, it seems that behaviours we are currently seeing are actually encouraging consumers and businesses to put more waste into energy recovery, rather than the other way around.
Crucially, this focus on collection as opposed to prevention is actually the opposite of what residents want. As part of our work on WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste initiative, research shows that people consistently want advice on how to prevent food waste ahead of food waste recycling and collection information. Nobody likes wasting food and the cost of wasted food at a time when people are increasingly squeezed, remains the key motivator for action to change food use behaviours.
Utility companies also play a role in food waste. Water companies such as Anglian Water and its ‘Keep It Clear’ campaign invest extensively to ensure people don’t dispose of food down drains, blocking sewers. But with waste reduction targets to meet, some local authorities are trialling waste disposal units in residents’ homes. These at-home ‘macerators’ cut out the cost of food waste collection and disposal, saving money and ensuring local waste reduction targets are met. These trials, which will run for two years and are currently at the halfway point, have brought local authorities and water companies together to determine what the long-term impact of macerators is likely to be. The fear is that schemes such as these will result in food waste being put back in the water system, causing blockages, and essentially shifting the problem elsewhere. Furthermore, these short-term tactics mean some council’s aren’t investing in behaviour change techniques to tackle the issue of food waste head on and create a long-term, sustainable solution.
The issue of food waste isn’t going to go away anytime soon and there are some scary consequences that we will face if changes aren’t executed quickly, at a local, national and global level. Charities, government, utility companies and local authorities alike need to work together to educate all levels of the food chain to create long-term sustainable behaviour change solutions. Short-term goals may help stakeholders reach targets quickly but just aren’t going to cut in a few years’ time as demand for food and waste grow. Action needs to happen now if we are to create a sustainable food future.
The challenge, to meet the rising demand for food in ways that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, and in the face of evolving worldwide markets and distribution mechanisms, let alone global climate and demographic changes, is a huge ask, but a vital task.
Belinda Miller, Director of Insight, Corporate Culture