UK’s food waste could feed 30m people a year

Twisted nature: Food waste costs the average UK household £480 per year. © Imperfect Picks

Last night, a leading British chef launched a campaign to reduce the 15 million tonnes of food wasted each year. Who is to blame for this shameful squandering of scarce resources?

‘That’s wonky so that can’t go in… That’s too big… That’s too short, far too short. These are all too small...’ Debbie Hammond works on Tattersett Farm in Norfolk, and she is giving the TV chef and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall a tour.

In total, she is forced to throw away 30-40% of her parsnip crop for being ‘imperfect’ — not bruised or deformed, but not fitting the ‘cosmetic standards’ of the supermarkets — sometimes by only a few millimetres. That amounts to 40 tonnes of vegetables each week: enough to fill 300 trolleys and feed 100,000 people. This is then multiplied over the 40 or so weeks that parsnips are in season.

Last night, Fearnley-Whittingstall used his new BBC television series Hugh’s War on Waste to launch a campaign to reduce the wastage of food by supermarkets and consumers. In total, Britain throws away around 15 million tonnes of food each year, and around half of this is thanks to households over-buying food, or rejecting it as soon as it passes its sell-by date.

The waste is ‘catastrophic’ in an era when more than one million people relied on food banks last year, said Fearnley-Whittingstall. But he argued that the waste goes beyond food — it also involves wasting the energy resources used to transport and manufacture it, even the land which could be used to grow other crops. We live on a planet of ‘limited resources’, he said. It is time to produce the same amount of food using less energy.

Supermarkets are becoming more aware of the issue. Over the weekend, Morrisons announced that it would begin donating all of its unsold food to charity. In France, such practice is required by law, after the government banned supermarkets from throwing away edible food as a matter of ‘absolute urgency’ earlier this year. The same law also bans the retailers from deliberately spoiling unsold food to prevent ‘scavengers’ from fishing it out of bins during the night.

Waste not, want not

It’s all well and good criticising supermarkets, said a spokesperson for Morrisons on Radio 4’s Today Show yesterday morning. But customers do not buy it — they are looking for the perfect parsnip to adorn their Sunday roast, and they are not interested in something which looks ‘wrong’. Until customers embrace the ugly, supermarkets will continue to supply the ‘perfect’ parsnips which they know will sell.

‘Ridiculous!’ cry campaigners. Customers cannot buy what isn’t there, and many of the vegetables which do not make it into the shops are rejected on the grounds of a few millimetres here and there. In times of food shortages, supermarkets relaxed their guidelines and saw no decline in sales. It is ridiculous not to even give people the choice.

You Decide

  1. Would you eat food which has gone past its sell-by date?
  2. Who is responsible for reducing Britain’s food waste — supermarkets or customers?

Activities

  1. As a class, list five things you can do to help reduce food waste. Design campaign posters encouraging your teachers and classmates to follow the guidelines.
  2. Plan a meal which uses unwanted food — think about cuts of meat which are often rejected, or the bits of vegetables which are often thrown away. How can you make them into something delicious?

Some People Say...

“Wasting food is as bad as stealing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can I really make a difference?
Faced with such high numbers, it’s easy to feel a bit helpless. But don’t be disheartened — campaigns such as this are a great way to unite people’s actions and send a clear message that public opinion is against needless waste. Using more leftovers or buying wonky fruits may seem like a small change, but if every family committed to action, it could make a huge difference.
Is it dangerous to eat foods which are past their sell-by date?
It’s best to use your common sense. No one is suggesting you eat rotten vegetables or mouldy bread, and you should always be careful with meat. But sell-by dates are estimates, and your food won’t go toxic at the stroke of midnight. The best way to cut waste is to plan in advance to avoid buying food you won’t eat.

Word Watch

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
In 2010, the chef’s ‘Fish Fight’ campaign changed EU laws after highlighting the high number of edible fish which were killed and then thrown back into the sea.
Tonnes
A metric tonne is 1,000kg. Not to be confused with an Imperial or long ‘ton’ (UK) 1,016kg, or the US ‘short’ ton 907kg.
15 million tonnes
From a study by Wrap, the organisation behind the campaign Love Food Hate Waste. One person needs approximately half a tonne of food per year. Therfore, 15 million tonnes is enough to feed 30 million people.
One million people
These figures come from the Trussell Trust, the UK’s main food bank charity. It handed out three days’ worth of food 1,084,604 times between April 2014-15.
Morrisons
With more than 500 stores around the UK, the supermarket chain said the ‘challenge’ of the scheme will involve finding the ‘right community partners’ to work with, as the leftover foods will vary.
Scavengers
In the years running up to the decision, French media had highlighted the plight of poor families who ‘foraged’ for food disposed of in supermarket bins.

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