Tesco and Marks and Spencer are helping to tackle an issue that rose up the global agenda this year

Food waste is what happens when supply exceeds need. “Every day, all of us are careful not to waste what we attribute value to, and yet we waste a lot of food,” observes Guido Barilla, chairman of the world’s largest pasta maker, Barilla. “This is not only due to logistics problems. The reason should be sought in a cultural change that has relegated a primary good, as food, to the role of a generic commodity.”

When Barilla examined its pasta supply chain it found less than 2% wasted in farming and production; but consumers wasted 12% of what they cooked.

In 2016, there has been a raft of reports, commitments, and supply chain investigations, as well as some innovative means of putting waste to good use.  But there are no reliable figures for farm waste, and a methodology for establishing manufacturing waste levels is an evolving art.

UK consumers are Europe’s most wasteful, but they and retailers are getting the message. The annual report from Wrap, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, suggests that avoidable household waste fell 21% between 2007 and 2012. So is this because less food is being bought? There’s no data. UK households were still throwing away 4.2 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten. Many say they would throw away less if they could buy smaller quantities. This is how the US firm Blue Apron can claim to cut waste by 62% compared to grocery shopping. It provides customers with only what’s needed for each recipe.

Labelling confusion

Understanding consumer behaviour will help retailers and their customers cut waste. Research by the Food Standards Agency earlier this year showed that consumer confusion about when food can safely be frozen, or for how long, means people are needlessly throwing out edible food. It also underlined the confusion between “best before” and “use by dates”, over which environmental campaigners have long been calling for clarity. As part of legislative proposals on the circular economy, the EU is considering options to simplify date marking and extend the list of foods that are exempt from best before labelling. It has commissioned research on the use of date marking which is expected to be released by the end of next year, and will inform policy.

This will impact on how much waste supermarkets generate. Understandably much attention has focused on back of store waste, with 800,000 people across Europe signing a petition calling on Brussels to oblige supermarkets to donate unused food to charity. They want all member states to follow the example of France, which this year became the first country to prevent supermarkets from binning edible food. Instead they must donate to charities, which will disperse it through food banks.

Courtauld Commitment 2025

Efforts to similarly legislate in the UK came to naught, when a private member’s bill failed to get its second reading in January. However, food retailers have signed up to the Courtauld Commitment 2025. This is a voluntary agreement to cut food and drink waste – and associated greenhouse gas emissions – by a fifth by 2025. It will also tackle water use in the supply chain. M&S and Tesco also committed to nationwide roll-outs of food redistribution programmes, so all their UK stores can donate excess food to charity. A few manufacturers, including Associated British Foods, and Premier Foods, have also signed up to the Courtauld Commitment. Feedback founder Tristram Stuart told the Environment Select Committee, which is currently investigating food waste, that more manufacturers would come on board if there was a national target for waste reduction, as there is in Scotland and the US. Indeed, last month, 15 major US food manufacturers including Kellogg, Campbell Soups and Unilever, committed to taking concrete steps to halve food loss and waste in their operations by 2030.

Feedback's Tristram Stuart has led the war on food waste

The Scottish government’s circular economy strategy aims to cut food waste by a third by 2025. When Zero Waste Scotland published the baseline figures on which progress will be measured, it looked as if manufacturing and households produced a similar proportion of Scotland’s food waste. This was in contrast to Wrap’s latest figures, which suggest UK households generate four times the proportion of food waste compared to manufacturing. While there are differences in the food and drink industry north of the border, the contrasting figures seem to be down to methodology. But it’s important, because knowing where the waste is generated influences policy.

Preventing abuse

The EU circular economy package, which is expected to have completed legislative hurdles by early 2018, will introduce a common methodology across Europe. But getting at the true picture in the supply chain will be key. MPs on the environment select committee heard last month that work done by Wrap for Tesco revealed that just 1% of the food that can be redistributed is at the retail level.

Nor is there reliable data for hospitality supply chains, or for farm waste. Supermarkets stand accused of foisting their waste onto farmers when they cancel orders at the last minute – ostensibly on cosmetic grounds – when demand for a crop is lower than forecast. The government is now consulting on whether the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) should be extended beyond direct suppliers of the 10 major supermarkets, to other suppliers and farmers, to prevent abuses.

Supermarkets are offering customers less than perfect produce
Image Credit Asda

Tesco, which became the first retailer to be investigated by the GCA, seems to have gone further than any other, by committing to whole-crop purchases of potatoes and bananas. It has also been trialling guarantees for fixed percentages of orders. For the past three years it has been disclosing the extent of waste in its UK operations, which crucially allows it to identify waste “hot spots” and make plans to eliminate them. No other major supermarket has followed suit, but perhaps that will change in 2017. Tesco is using a new waste reporting standard, - launched globally this year, that is being adopted by many European and US food producers, which can only aid transparency.

Other incentives

Besides wielding a stick, France offers tax breaks for charitable donations of surplus food – worth 60% of a donation and capped at 0.5% of turnover. Indeed, an EU comparative study suggested tax breaks are the most effective incentive for food donation. Those tax breaks make it cheaper for firms to send food to charity rather than to anaerobic digesters, which produce energy. In the UK, the Renewable Heat Incentive has the perverse effect of encouraging farmers to send edible food down this route rather than to cut excess production. Ironically, the UK parliament has revealed that it sends all uneaten food to anaerobic digesters.

Anaerobic digestion of food waste is controversial
Image Credit Wrap

Some manufacturers are reporting progress in cutting waste, with sustainable uses being found for potato peelings and oat hulls, for example. The EU has just launched a forum to share best practice across Europe, which it believes will be a game changer. Certainly in the UK, 2017 is likely to see many more retailers and the big discounters redistribute surplus food. Campaigners hope the public pressure, which has been so effective at retail level, will see those supermarkets in turn exert a positive influence further up the supply chain.

This is issue 8 in our top 10 issues that shaped sustainability. For the full list see here.

Main Image Credit: Credit : Wrap
food waste  sustainable agriculture  SDGs  WRAP 

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