Food waste in UK politics – Dec 2020 and Jan 2021

Image by Erin Chapman

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

In December 2020 and January 2021:

  • The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published it Sixth Carbon Budget on how the UK can reach net zero by 2050, including targets for food waste
  • The Earl of Caithness asked my question about food waste in the House of Lords
  • The Environment Bill was delayed for the third time since 2018

The CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget

The Committee on Climate Change is responsible for finding ways the UK can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

In December, it published its Sixth Carbon Budget. Its Waste Sector Summary included the following targets for food waste:

  • Ban on biodegradable wastes going to landfill in 2025, full ban 2040
  • 51% fall in edible food waste by 2030 and 61% by 2050
  • Mandatory business food waste reporting by 2022

These are great ambitions and put the onus on the government to prevent food waste from going to landfill and emitting greenhouse gases. As well as finding better ways of disposing food waste, such as community composting, the government will have to find ways of stopping food waste from being created in the first place.

However, food waste charity Feedback has issue with the 50% by 2030 target, as the baseline is from 2007 and not 2015. This makes the target a lot less ambitious and includes the reduction we have already achieved between 2007 and 2015. Moreover, mandatory reporting does not include farm-levels of food waste, of which Feedback says could account for as much as 50% of the UK’s total – there is just no data for it yet.

Nevertheless, these targets lay good groundwork for focusing on food waste reductions, and I’m sure better ambitions can be built on them in the future. They are also useful for holding the government to account on its current plans and inspired my question for the House of Lords.

Food waste in the House of Lords

After the Earl of Caithness asked a question about food waste in November, I wrote to thank him which resulted in a discussion about how else the government could tackle food waste in the UK.

On Friday (15th) he emailed me to ask what question he could bring to the House of Lords next. I suggested a question and he asked it in Parliament last week (Monday 18th).

The question was:

“My Lords, given that prevention is better than cure and to achieve food waste elimination ambitions recommended in the CCC’s sixth carbon budget, what steps is my noble friend taking to prevent household waste, beyond awareness campaigns, and to explore novel ways in which to make reducing food waste easier for households?”

Why that question?

To elaborate on the CCC’s food waste targets above, they recommend that “waste sector emissions fall 75% from today’s levels to reach 7.8 MtCO2e/year by 2050. Around 80% of the abatement to 2035 is from waste prevention, increased recycling and banning biodegradable waste from landfill.” I wanted to emphasise the ‘prevention’ duties in the CCC’s recommendations.

WRAP research shows that 70% of post-farm food waste happens in households, and the government have done little so far to address this, focusing on retail and service sectors instead.

A hole in the government’s current strategy is therefore around food waste prevention in households, i.e., stopping it from being produced at home in the first place, and they will need to fill this gap to achieve their net zero ambitions.

Most household prevention strategies so far have focused on awareness campaigns, like Love Food, Hate Waste and the new Wasting Food: It’s Out Of Date initiative. Unfortunately, progress from such endeavours has stalled, and can only go so far in reducing food waste at home. Studies have shown that policy and campaigns have failed to take external factors into account, hence the question for exploring “novel ways to make reducing food waste easier for households”.

Lord Goldsmith replied with:

“My Lords, my noble friend raises a really important point. The UK is fully signed up to meeting the UN sustainable development goal 12.3 target, which seeks to halve global food waste at consumer and retail level by 2030. Our resource and waste strategy committed us to better redistributing food to those in need before it gets thrown away, and we have put £15 million into that. We are consulting on mandatory food waste prevention targets for businesses and publishing a food surplus and waste hierarchy to support businesses to prevent food waste. Around 3 million tonnes of waste has been prevented since 2013 and, of that, around 2.7 million tonnes is food waste.”

Analysis

First of all, Lord Goldsmith sidestepped the question about new ways of reducing food waste in households – I suppose because the government have no plans for this at the moment.

He also repeated flawed answers from November. Redistribution of food waste is not preventing food waste, and food waste is not the answer to food poverty. Moreover, the consultation he is talking about has been delayed.

Preventing 2.7 million tonnes of food waste since 2013 might sound impressive, but equates to 386,000 tonnes a year, while 9.5 million tonnes is still produced at the same time. This barely dents the mountain of food waste we face in the UK.

The government delays the Environment Bill again

In July 2018, the government announced it would set new laws for nature, air, water, chemicals and waste for when the UK was to leave the European Union. These would be covered in their “flagship” Environment Bill. They proclaimed it would encapsulate the most ambitious environmental laws in the world, and be the envy of our European neighbours.

However, the Bill has now been set back for the third time in 2.5 years, making many green organisations wonder whether the environment is really a priority for this government.

The government say they ran out of time to debate the Bill before the parliamentary session ends. They will pick up again in May, meaning the Bill will not become law until the autumn. Many are unconvinced that the delay was necessary, considering that the government has had four years since the referendum to deliver on its green promises, and has been able to pass other legislation quickly in the last year. This delay of 6 months undermines the UK’s credibility in a year which it is hosting COP26 and should be showing leadership.

Not only is this bad news for the environment, it gives a lot more uncertainty for farmers. The only silver lining is that this leaves more time to strengthen certain aspects of the Bill.

What does this mean for food waste?

Food waste reduction was not in the Bill in the first place, however provisions for other types of waste, such as introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic and other single-use items, will now face a frustrating delay.

There may be more time now to draw up duties for government to reduce food waste. On the other hand, when the Bill returns there might be so many amendments tabled that food waste will be crowded out.

Published by foodwastestories

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