Breaking the Food Waste Chains
There are lots of good reasons to stop the disgrace of food waste, but change is slow, writes Caitlin Shepherd.
The food industry is responsible for generating approximately 50% of the 18–20 million tonnes of food wasted in the UK every year. I have encountered food waste in large quantities at every stage of the supply chain in the UK. Both public and private sector policymakers are now starting to respond to evidence of the vast quantities of food being wasted, but change is slow.
The problem is that avoidable waste comes at a cost to society and the environment. In the UK food poverty is on the rise, and globally one in eight people do not have enough to eat. Meanwhile, the food industry consumes large amounts of natural resources while contributing to climate change. So cutting food waste will reduce hunger and greenhouse-gas emissions, whilst lessening demand on our shared natural resources such as land and water supplies.
We humans are united through the common experience of eating. This vital act ties us to the natural world. Natural resources – including water, soil, organic matter, land and ecosystems – underpin the production and consumption of food, and all resources are under increasing pressure.
Global agriculture is estimated to contribute 12–14% of greenhouse-gas emissions, including those associated with fertiliser production; the figure rises to 30% or more when costs beyond the farm gate (and especially land conversion) are factored in. On an international level, 10% of the greenhouse-gas emissions from the West come from growing food that is never even eaten.
Evidence to accurately quantify global food waste is currently lacking, but it is estimated by some that as much as 50% of food produced globally goes to waste. This problem needs to be addressed as a political priority if global food systems are to feed over 8 billion people equitably and sustainably by 2030. Jill Evans MEP has stated: “What I’d like to see is legally binding targets to reduce food waste. People want to reduce food waste, they want to see change, and it has to come from government.”
Food waste is now on UK and EU political agendas. The British government has addressed the issue in reports such as Food 2030, The Future of Food and Farming Foresight report and Defra’s Waste Strategy for England, and is currently rolling out voluntary industry agreements on food waste. But these softly-softly approaches are not working: the focus is overly directed at households, and industry-facing agreements are too unambitious to bring about any significant change.
It is time for the government to be bold and lead the way in introducing food waste audits and reduction targets that are legally binding. Any governmental policy change needs to clearly follow the waste hierarchy: food waste must first be prevented, then reduced, and then redistributed. The aim of food sustainability should to be to produce zero food waste. Policy should focus on creating far-reaching, large-scale change. And to achieve this, the organisation This is Rubbish makes two key proposals:
1) Make it mandatory that all big businesses in the food industry be required to conduct regular food waste audits. To deter false reporting, incorporating an independent ombudsman to spot-check would ensure an accurate audit uptake. It is likely that such enforced methods would be argued against by the key players in the food industry, but the end result would be more efficient supply chains, reduced costs and increased profit margins achieved through cost saving.
2) There is a workable precedent for introducing ambitious and mandatory food waste reduction targets. The carbon emissions reduction targets, introduced as part of the 2008 Climate Change Act, are an example of a model that could be used to measure the reduction of food waste.
History suggests that businesses are likely to object to regulation, on the grounds of the perceived high costs and also in a bid to remain free from government interference. But this argument doesn’t hold; there are affordable ways of integrating food waste audits and reduction strategies into existing waste-accounting systems. Companies are already familiar with producing environmental and social audits, and understand the methods used to gather data. Opposition to the high costs of food waste accounting can be countered by the statistics showing that almost 50% of businesses that have now taken steps to cut food waste have measured significant savings due to financial benefits through lower taxes.
To generate any significant movement advocating the above proposals, the focus must lie with collaborative interdisciplinary working. This is why we launched This is Rubbish. We work across the industry, with professionals from all parts of the supply chain, and with policy experts, academics and the wider public. We did this at the Forum and Feast event in Wales in 2011, working in partnership with 35 collaborating artists, poets, performers, musicians, policymakers and expert speakers, and we are preparing to do the same again in the very near future.
We believe the vehicle for change is politically informed participatory art and interactive experiences, aiming to engage government, industry and the public with viable policy-change proposals. One previous collaborator, Harriet Lamb, an author and the director of the Fairtrade Foundation, states: “This is Rubbish communicates the problem of food waste effectively and accurately. It also communicates it visually and emotionally.”
Such creative engagement demonstrates that the political is personal. We believe immersive and celebratory art is a perfect place to position political debate and discourse. Committed to evidence-led campaigning, we also hope to call for realistic, timely and viable policy changes.
This is Rubbish has set out to inspire and mobilise far-reaching support for our calls for the legislative regulation of large-scale, wasteful food industries as an important step in reducing the scandal of food waste.