Here’s a disturbing statistic: UK households waste a third of all the food they buy. Or how about this: every year we produce 5.3 million tonnes of avoidable food waste.
This picture – in which we waste £12 billion each year – is a particularly concerning one in the current age of austerity and deepening environmental concern.
Thankfully, there’s inspiring work being done by the like of Fare Share, FoodCycle, and Food Not Bombs. These three groups share a common ethos: that food headed toward landfill can be put to good use, feeding those in need, providing opportunities for volunteer cooks to build skills, and to engender community spirit.
Yet, while it’s heartening to think that we’re combating the issue of food waste by redistributing what’s left unwanted, it’s worth considering that what can be found out the back of a supermarket isn’t representative of the large-scale losses the workings of the food industry cause.
It’s been estimated that 60% of all food wasted is wasted before it reaches consumers – which makes the problem considerably larger. Starting right from the beginning of the supply chain, needless excess is produced, and wasted.
Wales-based This is Rubbish were formed in 2009 at a mass waste food feast. Committed to making changes higher up the supply chain, 2011 has seen them holding feasts all over Wales. Featuring a pop up cafe and community events, the tour has raised awareness about the surfeit of wasted food.
But how much is wasted? Rachel Solnick from This is Rubbish talks me through the waste-cycle of an average potato crop.
The problems begin with the agreements between farmers and supermarkets. In order to meet demand, supermarkets require farmers to meet their required tonnage exactly. But as anyone who has gardened knows, the matter is rather more inexact than that.
For fear of losing their contracts, farmers are encouraged to over-produce, growing 140% or so of the required amount in case of disaster. It’s unlikely this produce will be sold; farmers may be restricted by contract, or there may not be another interested buyer on the horizon. At this stage, the excess will probably be left to compost in the ground.
Then it’s on to harvest. The potatoes lifted will be subject to stringent aesthetic standards. Supermarkets evidently live in fear of the horror the British public will experience if presented with an unsightly tuber – and act accordingly.
As an indicator of how much these requirements affect the accepted yield, the experiences of 2007 are illuminating. Tristram Stuart reports in his book Waste that the potatoes were adversely affected by flooding, causing the loss of 40% of the crops. Supermarkets still managed to source most of their produce from the UK, however, simply by relaxing the aesthetic standards.
Potatoes that do make the grade will then go through production, and packaging. By this stage, the amount of wasted food will have mounded up, concluding with that thrown away by supermarkets in accordance with use-by dates which may or may not be accurate, and further aesthetic standards.
As Rachel notes, “there’s something that twangs in all of us” at the prospect of throwing away food. However, we’re not just throwing away food. When a potato goes to waste, the energy and water used to grow it, the paid labour that lifted it, the cost of transporting it, and the energy and water used in processing and storing it are lost too.
All up, it’s a massive loss – an estimated 3% of the UK’s domestic greenhouse emissions, and 6% of all domestic water usage.
What’s causing this situation? While supermarkets are not keen to claim responsibility, the constricting contracts they have with farmers no doubt contribute.
Then there’s the lack of communication up and down the supply chain. Excess produce could find another buyer; unsightly produce could be used where its appearance is immaterial. Wherever the origins of the current arrangement lie, the present situation, which generates and discards an excess at every stage of production cannot be called efficient by any standard.
So what’s the solution? This is Rubbish ask that industry takes on the task of auditing themselves, so a realistic picture can be drawn, while also encouraging the government to introduce legislation to effectively reduce food waste.
And for the passionate, there are plenty of options for making a difference at the personal level, from using consumer power wisely to getting political.
Download This is Rubbish’s top tips for making a difference to food waste here.