National Food Strategy: tackling food waste is low-hanging fruit

Four years ago, Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon, was asked by the government to carry out a review of the food system, particularly looking at the accessibility of healthy food and the impact of the food system on the environment.

Two weeks ago, the government finally responded to the review in a policy paper. With the war in Ukraine and cost-of-living crisis heavy in the public consciousness, the government’s paper features food security and affordability prominently in its 33 pages. What it barely mentions is food waste.

9.5 million tonnes of food are wasted a year (not including food on farms) which has vast impacts on climate and nature. If food is wasted, it means that the land used to grow it was wasted too. All the space that could be devoted to habitat for nature or carbon stores like woodland and peatland is instead given over as fodder to a food system that cannot get a handle on its waste streams.

Reducing waste solves many of our problems. For instance, less waste means creating much greater food security. If all the food that is grown actually ends up in our bellies, we will need less fertilizer and less animal feed to produce it, both of which are being affected by the war in Ukraine.

Yet there was not one new initiative for combating food waste in the government’s paper. Food waste did not feature in the foreword or the Executive Summary, showing it is not a government priority when discussing the food system. You would be forgiven if you did not see it in there at all; it was given less than 200 words, 57 of those which were actually about packaging waste. The words it did use simply outlined two things that the government was already doing – working with WRAP, and requiring councils to collect food waste separately – plus a consultation that was promised in 2018 in the Resources and Waste Strategy.

The section on food waste contains zero new initiatives

If the government was serious about climate, nature, food security and national resilience to future food shocks, it would do the following:

  • Begin measuring food waste on farms, and document why those instances of waste happen
  • Introduce mandatory food waste reporting for all businesses by 2023, and include farms in scope
  • Redefine our 2030 food waste targets with a 2015 baseline
  • Classify redistributed food as waste to disincentivise overproduction
  • Replace all “best before” and “use by” dates with only a safety label
  • Remove all aesthetic standards for produce (i.e. make “wonky” food the norm)
  • Ensure businesses sell food loose or in smaller quantities
  • Restructure supermarkets so all daily essentials are in the front to reduce overbuying
  • Fund WRAP research that measures food waste quantitatively in physical waste surveys rather than qualitatively

As well as these, food waste charity Feedback criticised the government for not providing a consultation on introducing mandatory food waste reduction targets, which was also promised in the Resources and Waste Strategy in 2018. The government has indicated to Feedback “that this won’t happen until a few years after mandatory reporting is up and running”, meaning that there will be a delay of another 4 or 5 years. Feedback continues “shockingly, this is nearly a decade after the government promised action, and leaves only a few years before 2030, when the UK is meant to have met the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 to halve food waste”.

Another worrying element of the food system is its reliance on food banks. Food banks are not a viable solution to food poverty nor food waste. Indeed, the British Medical Journal recently lamented this conflation, saying ‘“leftover” food for “left behind” people will neither address the underlying cause of a person’s need for charitable food aid nor reduce levels of surplus food’.

The consultation published alongside the food strategy recommends that all the surplus food from retailers that is redistributed (read: given to food banks) should not be recorded as waste. This will simply incentivise businesses to cart all of their food waste to food banks instead of dealing with overproduction, which is the real problem.

The government wants this strategy to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impacts of the food system, in line with our net zero commitments and biodiversity targets”. But unless food waste is taken seriously, those commitments and targets will be impossible. Tackling food waste is low-hanging fruit in a fair and sustainable food system, and solves many of the problem the government has identified.

Image by Arthur Perdijk | @lookatplenty

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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