In the UK, roughly a third of the food grown in the field never actually makes into anybody’s mouth. For every three pigs raised on a farm, the equivalent of one will ultimately be sent to landfill. A third of all apples, perfectly good for consumption, will somehow be discarded. The message is simple: we waste food, and we waste a lot of it.
Food waste is a global problem, but in the developed world, where our farming and manufacturing practices are efficient, the food waste that occurs at these early stages is largely unavoidable (meat bones, egg shells, banana peel and the like).
Conversely, in UK homes – where 7m of the 13m tonnes of food waste comes from each year – 77% of waste is either avoidable (at some point, it has been perfectly good food) or possibly avoidable (food that some people eat, but others don’t, such as potato skins and meat fat). This is akin to throwing away one shopping bag in five as you leave the supermarket – with an annual cost to a family of four of more than £740.
Clearly, not all food waste is equal. The cost and environmental impact of a kilo of beef is much higher than that of a kilo of potatoes, as would be expected. And so with short shelf-life food categories. Fresh produce, bakery, meats and dairy top the most wasted list – and have the largest energy, CO2, and water footprints – and so should be the main focus for reducing waste.
It seems too easy to say that it is the responsibility of consumers to reduce these ridiculous levels of waste. And it is too easy. A couple of years ago, Professor Tim Lang wrote here about food waste being a symptom of a much bigger problem, explaining that the relative low cost of food almost forces a consumer society to buy more food than it can eat. It is arguably the economic powerhouses (in this case, the food giants) that drive this through brand advertising, store layouts and clever pricing strategies. So the question is now: isn’t it the food providers’ responsibility to reduce food waste?
Well, the answer is that both providers and consumers have a part to play. For the consumers, the argument for this is easy: wasting less food equals saving more money, and you feel good for doing less harm to the environment. For the providers (manufacturers and retailers), the drive is less clear: selling less food equals less profit.
Cooking up a solution
So how can food providers help consumers reduce food waste, but still remain profitable? There are a few options, but some of them are not easy to swallow. The price of food seems a pretty obvious place to start. Consumers currently spend around 11% of their income on food and drink. Five decades ago, the proportion was three times higher, so naturally people wasted less. In sub-Saharan Africa, where consumers spend half of their income on food, it would be difficult to envisage high levels of waste. But increasing the price of food such that consumers “value” it more is likely to be very unpopular – and such a move would fly in the face of the modern food industry and its apparently eternal price wars.
Looking at the statistics, it appears that a large proportion of food waste is due to products with short shelf-lives not being used in time. Consequently, there is potential for improvements in food processing or packaging and storage to increase the useable life of such products and reduce the potential for spoilage before use.
But given that leading supermarkets demand 90% of product life at the point of store entry, and goods already have extended lifetimes due to already excessive packaging and protective atmospheres, significant increases in shelf-life are unlikely.
A brave move might be to abolish “use-by” and “best-before” dates (we didn’t have them before the 1970s), but this would open up a legislative can of worms. Until somebody invents a device that can reliably tell whether a leg of lamb has gone off, I suspect these dates are likely to stay.
You could just make sure you eat the food before it goes bad, but the nation’s already bulging waistline might struggle with this extra consumption. Food waste via overconsumption is yet another issue.
Perhaps the greatest improvement would be to completely change the food provision market. Consumers are like micro-manufacturers: they buy stock (ingredients) and use processes (cook) to meet a demand (their family’s hunger). But unlike manufacturers, consumers aren’t very good at managing their inventory, using their processes efficiently or predicting demand accurately. This leads to food waste.
There is therefore an argument for food providers to help consumers meet their families’ needs by selling meals, not food. It’s not inconceivable to imagine in the future people planning meals and then ordering them off the internet for home delivery – it might build better relationships between providers and consumers, too. Even if consumers pay more for food which is delivered when wanted and actually gets eaten, it would be more convenient and could well end up being cheaper overall.
Whichever approaches materialise to successfully reduce food waste, one thing is certain: there needs to be a collaborative, mutually beneficial approach for both providers and consumers. Only with this market-level change can we expect the amount of food we throw away to diminish.
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