The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The Multiple Costs of Food Waste

1st December 2015

Food insecurity is a global tragedy. More than 10% of humanity, almost 800 million people, are undernourished. Even in a relatively high-income country like the UK, almost 25% of the population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion and over a million people have been helped by Trussel Trust food banks. And yet, food availability in rich countries represents 150-200% of nutritional needs in calorific terms (if you include indirect calories – those fed to livestock that could have gone to people – the figure is 300-400%). These opposing facts reflect economic inequality and an obesity epidemic, but above all, a colossal waste of food.

About a third of the world’s entire food supply – enough to feed 3 billion people and provide 130% of nutritional requirements – could be saved by reducing food waste.

At the farm level, waste is created by supermarkets’ strict cosmetic standards and last-minute changes to orders that unfairly offloads the risk of inaccurate sales forecasts onto farmers and suppliers. Feedback recently reported on the unfair and restrictive trading practices of supermarkets that are causing Kenyan smallholders to waste up to 50% of produce – sometimes when it has already been grown, harvested, packaged and flown to Europe (and then it may be held for four or five days before official rejection). The supermarkets operate in an oligopoly, controlling over 80% of the market, and they abuse their powerful position over farmers. Secondary markets are not responsive or lucrative enough to absorb the rejected produce.

At the retail level, food is wasted due to over-stocking – consumers have been conditioned by marketing images of cornucopian abundance to expect full shelves – and the overly cautious use of ‘sell by’ date labels. Most supermarkets don’t publish statistics on food waste, so there is inadequate transparency about the quantity wasted and a reduced incentive to act. It is often easier and cheaper for them to fill their bins than to donate food to charities feeding the hungry.

And at the consumption stage, food is wasted in restaurants and catering operations maintaining full menus around the clock and serving meals in excessive portion sizes. UK homes waste around 22% of all the food they buy, partly because we’ve bought more food than we can eat. But household behaviour is highly amenable to change; British household food waste has reduced 21% since 2007 with half of this attributed to awareness raising. Social values lie at the heart of behavior change and we must understand our role in the world’s food system: how we create it and how we can change it.

I spoke with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his TV campaign ‘War on Waste’ to expose the unfair practices of the supermarkets. The show had over 5 million viewers and over 280,000 people have already signed a pledge calling for supermarkets to change their practices and committing to do their bit – buying less, storing it properly and using it up.

The supermarkets claim that consumers won’t buy produce that doesn’t meet their aesthetic standards. Yet in 2012, when weather conditions led to an insufficient supply of ‘perfect’ fruit and veg, the supermarkets relaxed their rules and no one even noticed. No one noticed that their parsnips were too short, their cauliflower heads to small, or their bramley apples flecked with red. Nobody reported problems with curly carrots or complained about blemishes caused by the frost, wind, rain and drought. The definition of ‘perfect’ produce was created by and is perpetuated by the supermarkets.

Let’s be clear: so-called ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables are not lower quality. They are not uniform in size, shape or colour, but provided they are fresh, they are equal in nutritional value. Supermarkets must relax their specifications, yes, but grading and marketing ‘ugly’ produce at a lower price perpetuates the false notion that it is in some way inferior. Cosmetic standards push up the cost of food as farmers must charge higher prices to cover the expense of rejected crops. Shouldn’t we eat all edible produce and pay a lower price overall?

There is also an external cost to food waste. Food production is humanity’s single biggest impact on the environment – deforestation contributes to climate change and biodiversity loss, methane from livestock farming is a highly potent greenhouse gas, fertilizer run-off produces nitrogen blooms in oceans, and heavy amounts of water, fuel, and other energy inputs are required for farming. We are not just wasting food but all of the resources used to produce it and the climate change implications of leaving it to rot.

Supermarkets must relax aesthetic standards and governments must intervene to stop bullying practices. Retailers and food manufacturers who have surplus, edible food must divert it to charities. Regulations must be changed to allow food not fit for human consumption to be fed to livestock. And we must buy only what we need, and eat what we buy.

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