A third of all food produced is never eaten, meanwhile millions go hungry. What can be done? Here are six simple solutions to food waste
Like a hungry punter scanning a takeaway menu after a few pints, we as a society have trouble judging how much food we really need.
One third of all food produced globally is never eaten, with a huge proportion ending up in landfill. According to the charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), this amounts to around 9.5m tonnes of food each year in the UK alone, the production of which releases more than 25m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, more than 7m people in the country go hungry.
While the UK has cut food waste by around 15 per cent in the last 15 years, bolder thinking is needed. Below are six smart solutions to food waste.
Six solutions to food waste
1. Improving monitoring of waste
If you’re not measuring what you waste, you don’t know where your problems are.
According to Liz Goodwin, director for food loss at the World Resource Institute (WRI), around 40 per cent of the ‘top 50 food companies’ do not keep tabs on food waste. It’s a confounding statistic, given that monitoring waste has been proven to save culinary businesses money, helping them to make better decisions around ordering and selling.
“Once companies start measuring, they often realise they haven’t got their house in order, and there’s now potential to do something about it,” said Goodwin, “Something that has paybacks for the planet and the business’s finances.”
2. Making the food industry more circular
Like the Egyptian plover flying into the open mouths of Nile crocodiles to eat the food stuck between their teeth, partnerships in business can help turn one company’s waste into a useful resource for another.
Wellington County in Ontario, Canada, is leading the charge. It is trying to twist the linear food industry into a circle by establishing a network of 50 businesses that make use of each other’s waste by 2025. Amongst other triumphs, the scheme has already led to the creation of the first restaurant dish made entirely from unavoidable waste, utilising the by-products from eight local businesses. (In case you were wondering, it’s a trout sourdough sandwich, with a pint of beer to wash it down.)
Other examples of symbiotic partnerships around the world include Toast Ale, a British craft beer made from surplus bread, and Rise, which turns waste grain from New York breweries into high-protein flour and brownie mix.
3. Improving storage and transport
According to a study by the UN, 14 per cent of all food is lost after harvesting, but before it reaches shops. This is a particular problem in lower income countries, which can lack the necessary infrastructure to keep perishable food fresh during transport and storage.
Thankfully, a number of organisations have come to the table with inexpensive, low-tech solutions to this issue. One is Purdue University in Indiana. It has led efforts to commercialise an airtight, triple-layer sack for crop transport, which kills pests that may otherwise cause infestations (also reducing reliance on pesticides). Another is Apeel, a natural, edible oil that adds an additional protective layer to fruit and vegetables, keeping them fresher for longer.
4. Incentivising farmers to harvest crops
It’s currently more cost effective for farmers to let excess crops rot in the ground than spend resources on harvesting them.
This is one area of food production that the food charity FareShare believes is ripe for reinvention. The organisation is pushing the UK government to offer financial incentives for farmers to redistribute surplus food that they’ve grown, which the charity believes will tackle hunger and save the government £140m in costs avoided.
“While millions are being forced into food poverty, thousands of tonnes of good-to-eat food goes to waste each year across British farms,” said Lindsay Boswell, FareShare’s CEO. “We are urging the government to recommit to funding surplus food redistribution in the UK, and help get 100m meals to people who need them.”
Some people are taking matters into their own hands, implementing their own solutions to food waste. Across the UK, communities are coming together to salvage unpicked produce. The Cornwall Gleaning Network alone, for instance, has saved 100 tonnes of surplus vegetables from fields and farms.
5. Putting a price on organic waste
Rather than incentivising businesses to reduce waste, some countries have taken the opposite approach by penalising organic waste.
In South Korea’s capital, Seoul, residents are effectively charged for the amount of food waste they produce, either through the purchase of mandatory waste bags (the more you use, the more you pay) or through automated bins, which charge by weight. Such schemes have seen the city’s food recycling levels rocket from a lowly 2 per cent in 1995 to around 95 per cent today.
France, meanwhile, banned supermarkets from throwing away edible food that could be donated to charity.
6. Scrapping best before dates
Last year, many UK supermarkets called time on best before dates. Chains, including Asda, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, scrapped the labels on some products to reduce waste, a move that could set a global precedent.
Best before dates, which denote the time when a food is at its freshest (unlike ‘use by dates’, which show when an item of food, particularly meat or fish, is no longer considered safe to eat), have been found to confuse shoppers. One study suggested that more than 50 per cent of people would opt to bin perfectly edible food if it was past its best before date.
What we can do at home
Though changes on an industrial level are necessary, 70 per cent of post-farm food waste in the UK occurs in our homes. Reducing it not only helps the planet, but also saves us money. A study by Tesco, a UK supermarket, found that the average household spends £800 a year on food they never eat. When it comes to avoiding food waste, Liz Goodwin, believes small changes in mindset can make a huge difference.
“The solutions really are simple and they’re probably things that our parents and grandparents did but we’ve lost the habit,” she told Positive News. “It’s about planning your shopping and not getting distracted by two for one offers, then storing your food correctly and keeping an eye on what you have in the fridge. In other words, buy what you need, and then use what you buy.”
People can also help to limit food waste by choosing wonky or misshapen fruit and vegetables. Though the issue of cosmetic profiling is also an industrial one (a 2015 report by Feedback Global revealed that, on average, Kenyan farmers have 30 per cent of their yield rejected by supermarkets on purely visual grounds), shoppers can show there’s an appetite for misshapen products, aiding in altering the trend. Companies specifically utilising or selling misshapen fruit include Wonky Veg Boxes and Rubies in the Rubble.
Finally, those who want to go the extra mile can join a gleaning group. These teams of volunteers pick excess crops from farms, redistributing them to charitable organisations who use them to feed people, rather than letting them go to waste. The perfect way to work up an appetite.
Main image: Dan Cristian Padure