We need tougher laws to make food production and consumption more sustainable
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Reducing food waste has the potential to save resources, cut pollution and increase food security. It’s time the Government stepped up to the plate.
It’s been a while since I introduced my Ten Minute Rule Bills, in 2012 and 2015, in a bid to get politicians talking about food waste and recognising it for the scandal that it is.
It’s not just that it’s shocking to see good food go to waste in a country where food poverty is growing and far too many are forced to turn to food banks for help. It’s also the environmental impact; if food waste were a country, it would be the third highest greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China.
Since then, there’s been some progress. In January 2020, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reported that per capita food waste had reduced by 7% over the three years from 2015 to 2018, after stalling between 2012 and 2015. This puts the UK back on track to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 12.3 of halving food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030.
Public awareness campaigns like Love Food, Hate Waste and voluntary initiatives for businesses like Courtauld 2025 only go so far, though. Consumers want to reduce waste, but supermarket selling practices still make it hard for them to do so.
In September 2019, WRAP published a “one year on” report on its Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, showing that 156 businesses, representing more than half of UK food industry turnover, had committed to its “target, measure, act” methodology. But what about the other half?
In my bills, I called for mandatory food waste audits – so we could tell where food was being wasted in the supply chain, and which companies were the culprits – along with an obligation on big companies to donate surplus food to redistribution charities (something which became law in France in 2016).
The Government’s recent Resources and Waste Strategy includes a commitment to “consult on annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses and on seeking legal powers for food waste targets and surplus food redistribution obligations”, but Defra officials are apparently still working on the consultation paper.
I would like to see these targets and obligations included in the Environment Bill, which has just gone into committee in the Commons.
The Resources and Waste Strategy also includes a commitment to consult on “reducing greenhouse gas emissions from landfill by ensuring that every householder and appropriate businesses have a weekly separate food waste collection”.
The Environment Bill makes provision for separate collection of recyclable waste streams, including food waste, and for weekly household food waste collections. The big question, however, is whether the Government will find the money necessary to pay for this? “Dry recycling” will be paid for from the income from Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging, but that will not cover food waste. Local authorities, stretched as they already are, can’t be expected to do so.
More generally, I would like to see something in the bill on observing the waste hierarchy (including food waste), starting with prevention, then minimisation, and moving on to reuse, recycling and energy recovery, with disposal as the very last resort.
In theory there’s a legal requirement to follow the hierarchy; in practice, other than the measures to discourage sending waste to landfill, enforcement action is non-existent, and it is rarely used to guide decision-making or resource allocation.
If we are serious about reaching net zero by 2050 or sooner, and meeting SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production, then we have to get more serious about tackling waste.
Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East