Tackling Food Waste

I am the Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs. The job includes rural communities, wildlife, national parks, forestry, rivers (fish, irrigation, drinking water, and flooding), air quality, and more. And although I have to travel around the country, a lot of this brings me back to Cumbria. Two weeks ago, for example, I began by visiting the Environment Agency in Bristol, Natural England in York, and the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but ended with the Forestry Commission in Cumbria. The show which I was asked to attend as a Minister last week was the Cumberland Show. But stuck among the visits, are hundreds of specialised meetings in London – in the last week for example, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the next EU council meeting, upland farming in Exmoor, flood insurance, air quality in London, the trade in elephant ivory, and the ever-present greater crested newts.

How do you sum up a job like this? Take this afternoon, when I had to lead the government’s response to parliament on Food Waste. Humans are currently using 70 per cent of the fresh water in the world to grow food, and destroying rain-forests and emitting vast amount of greenhouse gases in the process. Many are still going hungry, and the world population is set to just keep growing, and eating more. Meanwhile, we still waste about a third of the food that is produced. There is waste in farming when supermarkets refuse to take fruits or vegetables which are slightly the wrong shape or colour. There is waste in transport, particularly in the developing world (Afghanistan, for example, grows great apricots but they are damaged on the trucks and by the lack of good refrigeration and packing facilities).
There is waste in shops – look at the perfectly edible food thrown into bins by shops up and down the country. There is waste in disposal – food sent to land-fills instead of being fed to animals. But above all there is waste in each one of our homes. Most of the food waste in Britain comes just from families throwing away food they could have eaten. The average family wastes sixty pounds of food a month. We desperately need to reduce food waste – environmentally, economically, and morally. Our nature, and our very population depend on it. Yet as recently as ten years ago, very little was done about any of this.

But things are changing fast. I remember meeting someone called Tris about ten years ago, and was surprised when he said that he regularly ate out of supermarket dustbins. I was even more surprised today to realise that since then he has written a best-selling book on food waste, led crowds of ‘gleaners’ to save vegetables from fields to redistribute them to charities, challenged European and British laws, taken on big supermarkets, and become an expert, who now works as a consultant, reducing food waste around the world.

And government has played its part too. We’ve helped to push through a new code with supermarkets and food businesses. This has led to a dramatic drop in the amount of food in supermarket dustbins; and to new ways of helping families not to throw away food before they need to (getting rid of ‘display-by’ dates, for example, and introducing individual packaging). The government land-fill tax has massively reduced the amount of food which isn’t recycled. We’ve backed a ‘whole crop’ campaign which means that instead of a chain buying only the ‘perfect’ tomatoes, it can use the top grade for loose sale, the next for processing, and the final grade for sauces and soups. Packaging has been reduced in volume but has also been improved – new re-sealable cheese packets for example allow cheese to last much longer. And there has been a surge in public education – explaining to the over sixty per cent of people who still believe that products last longer outside their packaging, that the reality is the reverse; or that products don’t need always to be frozen on the day of purchase.

The best bit, however, is that most of this is driven not by government but from the ground up, and quickly. In the last few weeks alone, in Brighton, the Real Junk Food café has opened which cooks meals made entirely from food waste (you ‘pay as you feel’ – and that seems to make for generous donations), and what they don’t cook they distribute to charities. In Barnsley, a community shop combines cheap good food with employment advice. In Scotland waste food used to make compost is reducing the use of rare peat-bogs. And Fare Share has worked with an Irish partner and Tescos to develop an I-phone app which allows charities to get free food directly from Tescos.

There is much much more to do. But if I was looking for a way of explaining why I like my new job so much, I’d start with this. It has been less than a decade since energetic people began to really tackle food waste. Government backed them with some laws, funding and policy. But the best ideas have come from the public, and almost half the reduction in food waste is because the public has chosen voluntarily to change their approach to food. And somehow the combined approach is working. Food waste in Britain has reduced by 21 per cent since 2007. It’s easy to be gloomy about improving the world, but the story of food waste is one reason that I’m ending my first month feeling quite optimistic.

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