Food waste in UK politics – November 2020

I often talk about needing bigger, ‘system’ changes to tackle food waste, and one example of this is changing food waste policy.

In November 2020:

  • The Environment Bill was on the agenda
  • A couple of peers raised food waste in the House of Lords

The Environment Bill

Right now, the government have is pushing a Bill through Parliament – the Environment Bill. For the past 40-50 years, we have relied on EU law to protect the environment. The Environment Bill will bring about new environmental laws for when we leave the EU. These will vary from reducing air pollution and enhancing nature, to improving water quality and managing waste.

There is currently nothing in the Environment Bill about preventing food waste. The only mentions of food waste in the Bill relate to disposal – what to do with it once it has already happened, but not how to stop it from happening.

What can I do?

The Environment Bill is currently at amendment stage, which means MPs can alter the text and add more legislation. If you would like to spend 5 minutes helping out, you can write to your MP and ask them to amend the Environment Bill to include stronger duties for food waste prevention. See this blog for how to find your MP, and an example email to send them.

Another way of putting food waste on the government’s agenda is to raise it in Parliament. A recent session in the House of Lords did just that.

Questions on food waste in the House of Lords

Last week (Tuesday 10th November), some members of the House of Lords spoke out on food waste during oral questions on the Waste Prevention Programme. I have posted the excerpts below, and analysed the responses by Lord Goldsmith, who is the government spokesperson for the environment.

The Earl of Caithness (Conservative)

“My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for his encouraging Answer, what plans does he have to raise awareness among the general public about the problems of food waste, given the enormous impact that it has on climate change, ahead of COP 26 next year?”

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Conservative)

“My noble friend makes an important point. The UK is absolutely committed to meeting UN sustainable development goal target 12.3, which seeks to halve global food waste at consumer and retail levels by 2030. Our resource and waste strategy included policies such as better redistributing food to those in need before it goes to waste, for which we have provided £15 million of new funding; a consultation on the annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses; and publishing a food surplus and waste hierarchy to support businesses in preventing waste. In response to the Covid-19 emergency we announced £3.25 million of additional funding to enable redistributors, big and small, to get more food to those in need, and that has been supplemented by further funding from DCMS. This is a priority issue and we have seen progress, but of course there is more to do.”

Analysis

This was a great question to ask about the link between food waste and climate change, especially as the UK is hosting COP26, and the eyes of the world will be on our climate targets. I do not think Lord Goldsmith did it justice.

A common tactic that government spokespeople employ is to list a number of initiatives that are in motion to sound impressive, even if it is not entirely relevant to the question. Lord Goldsmith talks a lot here about redistributing food to reduce food waste, making businesses report their food waste, and publishing a food hierarchy for guidance. But beneath the surface, these initiatives are not as impactful for the UK’s climate ambitions as it appears.

First of all, the consultation that will make businesses publish annual reports of their food waste was delayed today (16th November 2020). It was covered by the Guardian, with campaigners saying that Ministers are using the pandemic to stall this important consultation.

Secondly, food academics and campaigners have made it clear that the solution to food waste is not to redistribute it to food banks. Some say it takes the responsibility of food poverty away from government.

Thirdly, what Lord Goldsmith is referring to is food waste from retailers and businesses, which only accounts for 15% of food waste in the UK. Where are the measures for the rest of it?

Fourthly, Lord Goldsmith is only providing answers about what to do with food waste once it has been made, not how to prevent it in the first place.

You will notice that Lord Goldsmith does not address the climate impact of food waste and does not mention COP26. The Prime Minister is expected to make a speech this week on a 10-point plan for climate change, and I will be surprised if it includes food waste. There is a disconnect, it seems, between food waste and climate change for this government, and it is not considered a priority.


Baroness Boycott (Crossbench)

“I would like to follow up on the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, about food waste. Food waste has been the low-hanging fruit because everyone agrees that it is a terrible thing. The retailers have cleverly managed to reduce their own food waste, which is now down to 3%, whereas household food waste is now up to 70%. One of the main reasons for this is that supermarkets do not want to be left with old food, so they package large units of things such as mushrooms and fruit in a lot of plastic for lower-income people and, as a result, some of it goes to waste. Which part of the Government’s strategy will start to encourage supermarkets—which unnecessarily use a fifth of all plastics to wrap up fruit and vegetables—to offer loose selections so that people can go into the store and buy exactly what they need and not what the supermarket wants to give them? That will help to save money and cut down on waste and stop the situation where the poorest households throw away more food.”

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)

“There is no doubt that what we often refer to as consumer waste is nothing of the sort: it is producer waste. Very few people go into a supermarket wanting to buy a sprig of parsley encased in a brick of plastic. We are very keen to reduce the amount of packaging used and to ensure that the packaging that is used is properly and meaningfully recyclable. One of the measures that we will be using, and which I believe will deliver the most change to packaging, is extended producer responsibility, which is at the heart of our Environment Bill. That is a shift in emphasis from consumer to producer responsibility, requiring producers to take responsibility for the full lifetime costs of the products subjected to the regime of extended producer responsibility—of which packaging will, of course, be one.”

Analysis

I LOVED this question. Baroness Boycott asked something I would have asked – although 70% of food is wasted at home, campaigns rarely scrutinise how supermarkets and the wider food system contributes to this waste. One of my recent Instagram posts posed the same dilemma, with the food waste charity Feedback finding that Tesco makes £4 BILLION profit off food waste every year.

However, there is no evidence that lower-income households throw away more food. But her main question was sound, which was about what supermarkets can do to provide loose selections of food, to make it easier for consumers to reduce their own waste.

You will have noticed that Lord Goldsmith did not answer the question. He steered towards PLASTIC waste, despite the main question being about FOOD waste. He mentioned the Environment Bill, which, as stated above, does not include anything about preventing food waste at all.

The only positive point I gained from this answer was that if the government are serious about making producers responsible for plastic waste, maybe they will also be open to making food producers more responsible for food waste too.

What can I do?

You can also write to your MP asking them to raise food waste in Parliament. One way they can do this is to table a Parliamentary Question. Follow the link for how to email your MP, and scroll down for an email you can copy and paste, with a few suggested questions your MP can ask the Secretary of State.

Look out for more posts about food waste in UK politics – hopefully more optimistic updates will appear soon! And if your MP raises a question it will appear online with the answer from the government, and I’ll make sure to post about it.

Published by foodwastestories

Sharing stories to tackle root causes of food waste. Plus food waste tips, long reads, and reviews! Follow on Instagram @foodwaste.stories

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