Waste less food

February 10th 2014

Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson

One third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.

Food waste is in vogue at the moment. Some are taking real visionary steps to tackle this issue, just look at Tesco’s food waste strategy.  Tesco is identifying waste produced across the value chain, including the retail stage. By doing this, they’re acknowledging they’re part of the problem. But, they’re the exception. Other producers and retailers are tinkering around the edges, spending thousands to come up with their own definitions of food waste, even though exciting projects – like FUSIONS, which many of them have signed up to – do the same. Too many are still saying it’s not their responsibility; it’s consumers who drive change and they only respond to their demands. A cynic would say it’s an excuse for inaction.

Waste is about more than the amount of food which never reaches consumers or is thrown away along the value chain. It’s about how we value food. We never used to waste food. This is a modern phenomena. Over the past few decades we have changed our eating habits, shops have evolved, and we farm in a more industrialised way. It seems we’re getting more removed from where food comes from, and as we do we waste more.

This is before we look at the real cost of our food waste. Globally, we waste about a third of our food. This costs money. It costs to grow it, to harvest it, to process it, to sell it and to buy it. Essentially we are throwing away money. If we stopped wasting food we would save money, we would alleviate pressure on the global ecosystem, which we often forget provides us with services that would cost billions to replicate artificially.

So, will addressing food waste alone reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?

Yes and no. it easy to forget that when you throw away food you are throwing away water, land, labour, nitrogen, oil, money and our taxes (in the form of subsidies and tax breaks). Not all food is created equal; a piece of meat far outweighs the footprint of a vegetable. By reducing food waste we will of course reduce our greenhouse gas emission and take a small step towards tackling climate change. We will also reduce our water footprint and alleviate pressure on land to find new places for agriculture.

However, this alone is nowhere near enough. Food is a large part of our land, water, nitrogen and carbon footprints. We need to take action throughout the food system. The key driver behind what we grow, what is stocked in the shops and what we throw away is our eating habits. In the EU we eat more meat, dairy and sugar per capita than ever before. We don’t eat enough vegetables or whole grains. We eat more of the high input foods than are recommended and not enough of the low input ones.

How we gow, sell and treat our food is a modern invention. Which might mean it’s not too late to identify the negative aspects and counter them. We should avoid exporting our eating habits to the rest of the world. Do emerging economies really want to adopt such as wasteful food system that takes people away from nature and results in health threats such as obesity and diabetes? And, we need to make a move towards a diet that is two-thirds plant based and one-third animal based and/or highly processed.

It’s a reverse of what we eat at the moment. This change will reduce our foodprint, more so than just eliminating waste from the system. It is only through such as shift we’ll we be able to move to a low-carbon food system.

Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK

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