11 April 2019

Food waste: How to deal with a 10 million tonne problem


If the worst of the scare stories around food supplies in the event of a no-deal Brexit are to be believed, the Government may well be inadvertently making good on one of its other policy objectives: to crack down on food waste.

So starved of produce we will be, the narrative goes, that individuals will naturally become more economical with food, ensuring more of it ends up in their bellies rather than their bins. Indeed, the last time food waste declined noticeably in the UK was in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crash as people were forced into frugality.

In an ideal world, Britain would not need a botched secession from our largest trading partner to finally get a grip on its 10.2 million tonnes of annual food waste. As if we needed a reminder of the scale of the problem, just this week we discovered that we Brits throw away some 720 million eggs a year – three times the number in 2008.

Different people have different emphases for why we should take action on food waste. Charities typically point to squandered food as being wrong on economic, humanitarian, and moral grounds. There is also a strong environmental case for not letting food rot away. When food waste breaks down, it creates methane – a greenhouse gas vastly more potent than carbon dioxide – which accelerates climate change.

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, food waste is responsible for 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). If food waste were a country, it would be the third most carbon-emitting nation in the world. But the story doesn’t end there. Food waste effectively means that considerably more produce has to be grown than is necessary – in fact, an estimated one-third of all food grown doesn’t get eaten.

As a result, more acres of forests have to be cut down and soils disturbed, which destroys animal habitats and adds a further 800 million tonnes of CO2e to the true figure. It’s possible, therefore, that food waste is responsible for as much as 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2e per annum.

Overproduction of food means that more fertilisers and pesticides are required, which damages air and water quality. It means excessive amounts of packaging are needed, which harms wildlife. It means too many delivery vans on our streets, producing yet more carbon dioxide and air pollution.

Clearly, there is a compelling environmental case for action. To its credit, the Government is already taking steps to tackle food waste, such as allotting £15 million to pilot schemes to redistribute food surpluses. It also plans to consult on mandatory targets for food waste prevention, and annual reporting of food surpluses and waste by businesses.

Yet there are less interventionist policies which could also help tackle the problem without saddling businesses with any extra burdens.

One key area is food date labelling. As members of the EU, many foodstuffs are required by law to carry certain information, including ‘use-by’ or ‘best before’ dates. Yet research suggest that less than half of us do not fully understand best before dates, leading to perfectly good food being thrown away prematurely. Moreover, the dates themselves are often needlessly conservative – with some foods still perfectly edible perhaps days or weeks after their specified use-by dates.

Such dates are not without their use, but if retailers and manufacturers want to continue to display such information, they should have every right to do so. But, equally, if they’d happily dispense with the protocols, a little deregulation could go a long way in terms of reducing Britain’s food waste. Indeed, Tesco have started to do just this on the fringes of where the law permits – removing labels from hundreds of lines of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Relaxing regulations elsewhere could also help ensure as much surplus food as possible gets redistributed. A good example comes from America, where anyone donating food for redistribution is essentially protected from litigation should that food happen to cause a recipient to fall unwell. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act 1996 allows big retailers and manufacturers to give away excess food without fear of an act of charity tarnishing their corporate reputations and winding them up in court.

Food waste doesn’t just occur in homes and supermarkets, however. A good deal of produce is wasted at the farm level due to spoilage. Ever since humans first started farming, superior strains of crops have been selectively bred to increase yields and overall utility. Recently, however, advances in genomics have meant DNA of living organisms can be more precisely edited, maximising desirable characteristics, while minimising undesirable ones.

In practice, this might mean genetically editing crops to be more resistant to drought, so that more of what farmers grow actually ends up in a supermarket, or to have a longer shelf life, so it doesn’t perish as quickly when it gets there. Combined, genetic editing could eliminate a fair amount of food waste early on in the supply chain. Moreover, its application in developing countries – where the majority of food waste occurs in fields – could be transformative.

Sadly, not everyone is as sanguine about gene editing as they ought to be. Last year, the EU in its infinite wisdom controversially decided that genetic editing should be placed in the same hyper-precautionary regulatory schedule as genetic modification (an entirely different scientific process). This all but prohibits its proliferation within EU member states. So, if the UK does eventually leave the EU, we will have a chance to depart from this risibly misinformed position and embrace the wonders of gene editing.

As much as government policy can move the dial in terms of addressing food waste, a host of emergent technologies being pioneered by the private sector also look set to help us deal with the problem.

A healthy ecosystem of apps, for example, now link businesses up with consumers to shift excess stock – often at the end of the trading hours with discounts available for savvy customers. Supermarkets are investing in artificial intelligence to more prudently manage inventories, especially with reference to things like understanding how weather patterns determine demand for certain products. Innovations in packaging, such as individually portioned meals could render portion control mishaps a thing of the past, while hydrophobic coatings are being applied to the insides of bottles and jars allowing every last morsel of food to be extracted and enjoyed.

Clamping down on food waste may appear trivial compared with the other issues facing the country. But given its contribution to climate change and other environmentally damaging impacts, its profound social costs cannot be underplayed. But the Government should recognise that not every problem requires an interventionist ‘solution’ – sensible de-regulation combined with embracing new technology has the potential to make food waste a thing of the past.

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Eamonn Ives is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.