Holes and goals: The UK’s curious food waste targets

Do we have the right food waste targets? Why does it matter?

In my previous blog ‘What is food waste?’ I explored how food waste is defined, who comes up with the definitions, and what impact this could have on policy.

Since then, I have read Feedback’s (strangely named) report “When there’s no waste, there’s a way (to net zero)” and this blog post aims to highlight the alarming findings of that report.

I learned that the UK’s food waste calculations are even more flawed than I thought. This is due to the omission of a huge dataset of food waste at farm level, and by manipulating 2030 targets to look better.

Both of these flaws mean that the UK will not reduce as much food waste as it could, which has climate implications – the less food we save, the more greenhouse gas emissions we create. But this means there is great potential in fixing our food waste models and targets, and achieve even greater climate ambitions.

Where is the data for farm-level food waste?

At the moment, food waste at farm-level, meaning food that is wasted before it enters manufacturing, retail, hospitality and households, is not calculated at all. AT ALL. This is not an unusual omission – there is actually no comprehensive data on how much food is wasted on farms in any country.

Food waste charity Feedback is worried that food wasted at farm level could be equal to all manufacturing, retail and hospitality sectors combined, totally up to as much as 5 million tonnes a year. This has vast consequences. At the moment, WRAP estimates that 70% of post-farm food waste occurs in households. But if farm waste figures were included in the total, this would shrink to 50%. This puts a lot less onus individuals to reduce their waste at home than is currently encouraged.

WRAP’s estimate of food waste distribution, without farm-level waste included (HaFS means Hospitality and Food Service)
Feedback’s estimate of food waste distribution, farm-level included

Why so much waste on farms?

Importantly, ‘farm-level’ food waste does not mean that farmers are the problem; it is not carelessness or mismanagement that is causing this waste. It is predominantly the supermarket model in our food system that is to blame. Although retailers only create 3% of food waste directly on their premises, they are responsible for a lot more food waste throughout the supply chain, including at farm-level.

Feedback found that farmers grossly overproduce food to meet supermarket demand, including having to adhere to strict aesthetic standards (e.g., particular sizes and shapes of produce). One farmer said that he used to grow a third more food than he intended to sell, “just to make sure that the supermarket buyer didn’t have a tantrum if you ran short”.

There is an argument that consumers drive this demand for ‘perfect’ fruits and vegetables. But the phenomenon is relatively recent. According to Fresh by Susanne Freidberg (2009), the obsession with ‘perfect’ items was driven by aggressive marketing tactics in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, fruit farmers in the USA tried to outcompete each other with more and more ambitions advertising, and their produce had to live up to these new standards. The California Fruit Growers Exchange “established strict quality grades based on size, shape, colour and degree of flawlessness”, and without these, farmers would not be able to sell under the CFGE label (page 145).

With greater means of transportation and refrigeration, produce could be sold all over the world, and these standards gained global dominance. As a result, consumers became accustomed to such items. Now it is hard to imagine seeing supermarket aisles full of fruits and vegetables of different shapes and sizes; we are so used to seeing totally uniform items, as if they were all clones of one another.

What is the solution?

Retailers have huge power in the UK food system. Currently, 10 supermarkets control over 90% of the food that we buy. They must be held accountable for the waste that their business models create. We need more independent markets that everyone can afford, and there must be a shift in culture, whereby shelves do not need to be fully stocked all of the time.

Farm-level food waste must be measured adequately and included within UK food waste statistics. It is bizarre that I am even having to write this out. There was meant to be a government consultation on mandatory food waste reporting, but it has been delayed. When it returns, it must incorporate farm-level reporting, and put the onus on retailers to be more responsible for their supply chains.

Adequately measuring food waste is key to meeting future targets, but the targets themselves have to be adequate as well.

50% reduction by 2030 – but 50% reduction from when?

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recently published its Sixth Carbon Budget, including food waste targets. In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3, the CCC recommends the UK reduces food waste by 50% in time for 2030.

So far, so good – but the UK decided to measure this reduction in a sneaky way. Firstly, the Sustainable Development Goal was adopted 2015, and this surely should be the date for which the UK sets its baseline of improvement. But as Feedback points out, it decided to measure its 50% improvement from levels of food waste in 2007. This makes the target a lot weaker and easier to reach. It is easier to reduce food waste in 23 years than 15 years, and using the 2007 baseline means the UK can add on improvements it made between 2007 and 2015 to its SDG achievements.

Moving the goalposts

To illustrate this flaw, Feedback showed that if we used the 2015 baseline, on our current trajectory we will achieve 20% food waste reduction by 2025. But if we use the 2007 baseline, we will achieve 40% food waste reduction by 2025. No more food waste will have been saved; it is simply a manipulation of statistics.

If we “achieve” 40% reduction by 2025 makes it easier to achieve 50% by 2030, reducing the incentive to increase prevention efforts, justifying current business practices and puts less pressure on government to change the flawed food system.

The target moreover leaves out ‘inedible’ food waste. As I have argued before, this is a flawed approach, as the definition of ‘inedible’ is entirely subjective, and ‘inedible’ food still decomposes and emits greenhouse gases. WRAP estimates that 25% of food thrown away is ‘inedible’, which means that our food waste targets ignore 25% of possible reductions. In addition, the targets omit farm-level food waste discussed above.

This is not just moving the goalposts; it is doubling the size of the goal and removing the goalkeeper.

I would be very curious to know what conversations were had to make these targets a reality, and who was responsible for the watering down of food waste ambitions. In the meantime, it is important to keep up pressure to revise these approaches and create a model for food waste prevention that truly brings emissions down and encourages positive system change.

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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