This article titled “Food redistribution is a win-win solution for food waste” was written by Tristram Stuart for the Guardian Professional Network, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 11th May 2012 10.57 UTC
Earlier this year a food industry whistle blower sent me video footage of 15 tonnes of fresh organic carrots that had been consigned to the garbage heap. The carrots were fresh, crisp and according to the category buyer for a UK supermarket, they were “some of the best carrots they have ever tasted”. Grown in Spain, immaculately washed, boxed and trucked all the way to the UK, it doesn’t take an environmental activist to work out that wasting carrots on this scale is a sub-optimal use of the world’s natural and financial resources. And yet, as the source confirmed “this happens all the time”. Why?
In this case the carrots were rejected by the supermarket because they had slightly wilting leaves. To my untrained eye, this wilting was undetectable. So why do we have a system that turns valuable product into waste, when the costs are obviously huge? People often assume that since wasting food means wasting money, surely no business would deliberately cause food waste.
Unfortunately, in this instance as in so many others, the company responsible for causing the waste in fact bears none of the cost of doing so. The farmer and middle man lose money, but the supermarket simply gets its carrots from another supplier.
In the UK, the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which has been drafted and reviewed by the select committees of BIS and Defra could redress the imbalance of power in the UK food industry, and protect small suppliers from unfair trading relations by obliging supermarkets to bear some of the cost of their wasteful policies. The government has hitherto prevaricated on giving the bill parliamentary time. But the Adjudicator Bill has now made it to the Queen’s Speech and the government should press on with plans to establish the watchdog, which is long overdue.
In the meantime some businesses are taking measures into their own hands to try to use up more ‘reject’ vegetables and avoid being party to food waste. Take a look at Tesco Value carrots, and you’ll find an array of wonky vegetables that formerly were being fed to pigs or simply left to rot. Waitrose has been flogging ‘weather blemished’ apples, explaining to customers that nature brings forth variety, not uniformity. These are rare examples of where the environmentally friendly option for customers is also the cheapest. One supermarket, Thornton’s Budgens in Crouch End, has set itself the ambitious target of eliminating all food waste by the end of 2012, through a combination of cooking up unsold stock in their deli prepared foods, heavily discounting near-expiry products, and donating any remaining surplus to charities.
Food redistribution is one of the best win-win solutions for food waste avoidance. Food companies can often save money by donating food rather than paying the £80 or so per tonne in landfill tax and disposal costs. Charities such as FareShare redistribute industry surpluses to organisations around the country, helping to feed the 5.6 million people in this country who don’t have access to a decent diet. On Saturday in Bristol we’ll be staging another Feeding the 5000 event in collaboration with FareShare SouthWest, to highlight this business-friendly, environmentally-sensitive, socially-responsible alternative to wasting good food.
According to the ‘food waste pyramid’, ensuring that food is eaten by people is the top priority. Failing that, the next best thing is to feed it to farm animals. And here Sainsbury’s has recently taken a big step forwards, by setting up a system to ensure any waste bread that isn’t sold gets fed to livestock.
The Feeding the 5000 campaign is inviting food businesses to sign up to the principles of the Food Waste Pyramid tool, which illustrates a simple set of steps that any food business can take to avoid and reduce food waste. Waitrose, Riverford Organic, Innocent, Abel and Cole, New Covent Garden Market and Thornton’s Budgens are a few of the businesses that have signed up already.
A recent initiative that has grown out of the Feeding the 5000 campaign has been the Gleaning Network UK, taking the same concept up to the level of farming. The aim of Gleaning Network UK is to make use of the thousands of tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables that are wasted in UK farms every year. Often farmers have difficulty finding secondary markets for their outgrades and have no choice but to leave fresh produce unharvested to rot in the field. Gleaning Network UK coordinates teams of volunteers with willing farmers across the UK to direct this fresh surplus produce to charities that redistribute it to people that need it most. Several tonnes of cauliflowers, cabbages, spring greens and apples are amongst the excellent British produce that has already been rescued, providing for thousands of meals served to people that cannot otherwise get a square meal.
Food waste can be seen as a massive problem but within it also lay great opportunities. The solutions are simple and positive, from the farm to the fork.
Tristram Stuart is a food waste campaigner and author of the book ‘Waste, Uncovering the Global Food Waste Scandal’ (Penguin, 2009) www.tristramstuart.co.uk
Find out more and sign the Feeding the 5000 pledge here.
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