Food waste: we need action not blame

Tesco’s half-year figures for food waste gave a shocking insight into the problem of food waste in the UK. Supermarkets must take responsibility for their part in this, but progress is being made and consumers can act too, says Caspar van Vark

It’s unusual for a big company to make unflattering announcements about itself, so it’s no surprise that Tesco’s recent publication of its own waste figures made the headlines. The supermarket giant generated almost 30,000 tonnes of food waste in the first half of 2013, it confessed in its half-year update, Tesco and Society: Using Our Scale for Good, produced in association with the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

This is the first time Tesco has revealed such data, and it deserves some credit for doing so, because its shocking figures reignited the public debate on this issue. Take bagged salads, for instance. Tesco estimates that across the UK as a whole (not just Tesco’s own sales), 68% of these are wasted, with 35% thrown out by consumers. From now on, Tesco says, it will no longer be offering us multi-buys on larger bagged salads.

As it happens, consumers are already getting much better at not wasting food. In early November, shortly after Tesco’s news, WRAP published its own updated figures which revealed that since 2007, we’ve reduced avoidable household food waste by 21%.

This improvement may be partly because we’ve been shamed into being more careful: food waste reports have been coming thick and fast. Back in January, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) grabbed the headlines with its Waste Not Want Not report, which estimated that 30-50% of all the food produced on the planet is wasted. Meanwhile, WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign has been consistently reminding us that our domestic food waste costs the average household £470 a year, rising to £700 for families with children.

Stated in those terms, the cost of food waste really hits home. But it also puts a lot of emphasis on domestic food waste. We don’t hear quite as much about where else waste takes place, and why. In developed countries, waste occurs across the whole supply chain, with about as much lost before the farm gate as afterwards.

The IMechE’s Waste Not Want Not report stated that 30% of produce harvested from the field never reaches the marketplace. Why? Tesco’s waste report disingenuously gives us a figure of less than 1% for retail waste, with much higher figures for field losses, but is quieter on all the reasons those field losses occur.

As anyone who has ever tried to grow some carrots in a garden or window box will know, vegetables can be quite diverse in nature. Some look ‘normal’, but many have lumps, bumps and other imperfections, rather like their growers. In our commercial food system, these are all rejected. Whole fields of cauliflower can be rejected for being too yellow.

It’s easy to blame supermarkets for this, and they do bear a lot of responsibility. Some of their demands for uniformity are related to the ease of processing and packaging, and a whole generation of people have grown up thinking courgettes are always straight.

At the same time, many consumers really do only want the best-looking stuff. At a recent roundtable discussion on food waste I attended, a farmer insisted that they have to grow more than they need to allow for this, because anything imperfect just doesn’t sell. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue, and focusing on blame isn’t going to help.

Instead, we need to act. We’re already wasting less at home, and some retailers, such as Waitrose, have introduced cheaper bags of ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables. It’s up to us to buy these and encourage supermarkets to accept more of those gnarled parsnips from their suppliers, rather than leaving them in the field.

Retailers also need to act, and at least Tesco is finally joining the debate and making changes. It’s ending those salad multi-buys, and increasing its use of apples – the dodgy ones, hopefully – in different product ranges, so fewer are wasted.

The most recent good-news story is the launch of a campaign – Vision 2020: UK Roadmap to Zero Food Waste to Landfill – urging producers, retailers, restaurants and consumers to secure a ban on all food waste going into landfill by 2020. The aim is to have compulsory collections of food waste by local councils, ensuring that food waste is harnessed as a resource to provide energy, heat and benefits for agriculture. But if we all keep up the good work, there may not be much to collect.