Food waste is a cost of living issue as well as a climate issue
This week, Waitrose joined the list of supermarkets is committed to fighting food waste by removing expiry dates on hundreds of fresh products.
Unlike best before dates, the best before date is about quality and taste rather than safety. But food labeling is confusing and widely misunderstood by consumers, meaning food that is still safe to eat is regularly thrown away.
Household food waste is a major problem. According to the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), the UK wastes 9.5million tonnes of food each year, valued at around £19billion, of which production created 36million tonnes greenhouse gas emissions. Charity FareShare Estimates that two million tons of it are still good to eat when thrown away. There is waste at all points in the supply chain, from ‘farm to fork’, but consumers are by far the biggest culprits, accounting for almost three-quarters – 70% – of food waste in the Kingdom -United.
Meanwhile, food poverty is reaching unprecedented levels as the cost of living crisis continues. The charity Trussell Trust reported that over the past year it has distributed 2.2 million food parcels through food banks – lower than pandemic levels but higher than any other year on record before 2020, and a 81% increase over the past five years.
The numbers are staggering. The two million tons of good food thrown away are equivalent to 1.3 billion meals – enough to feed anyone in food poverty for six months.
Studies also show that wealthy people tend to waste food more frivolously. Overall, the richest countries are much larger contributors to household food waste (although developing countries naturally worse early in the supply chain, such as on farms, due to issues such as extreme weather conditions and insufficient transport technology and infrastructure). The same disparity is found within countries: a recent study in the United States found that wealthier households and those with healthier diets generated more waste, as these people tended to buy more perishable fruits and vegetables.
[See also: How close are we to truly zero carbon renewable energy?]
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People tend to waste food at home due to a lack of time, awareness and education – leading to a lack of meal planning before shopping, confusion around food labeling, uncertainty around leftover storage and poor estimation of portion size.
So while supermarkets like Waitrose can encourage people to exercise good judgment by removing unnecessary labelling, there is also a need for a broader educational document on food safety and waste.
What is desperately needed for recycling (does anyone really know if their local authority takes bubble wrap?) is also desperately needed for food waste – a nationwide government-led awareness campaign teaching people the shelf life, storage, batch cooking and using leftovers. Likewise, highlighting the impact of food waste and its link to poverty could encourage people to be more socially aware.
But placing the responsibility solely on consumers also takes responsibility away from the supermarkets themselves. While most food waste comes from homes, 3.6 million tonnes come from the food industry, including farmers, manufacturers, processors, wholesalers, retailers such as supermarkets, and food service businesses such as restaurants. The government could mandate retailers to be forced to redistribute any surplus to charities and food banks. Currently, at least 200,000 tonnes of own brand edible supermarket food ends up being used as animal feed or to produce energy.
Of course, such political solutions are short-term and will not solve the systemic problems that are driving people to go hungry, including low wages, an inadequate welfare system and soaring energy bills. A 2017 Food Research Collaboration Academic Paper concluded that a two-tiered approach to food access, where some citizens are free to choose what they like and others have the decision made for them via food parcels, was “humiliating”. A collaborating professor, Elizabeth Dowler, even said that “the leftover food for the leftover people must stop”.
But difficult times call for drastic measures. Wasting food costs the planet, and the individual; the average British household throws away £1.36 of food a day, that’s nearly £500 a year. Food waste isn’t just a climate issue – it’s a poverty issue, and the government must invest in a combination of policy change, improved food education and emergency action to address it .
[See also: Energy bills: why does the UK force people on low incomes to pay more?]