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The UK's 15-million-tonne slop bucket

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Posted on 5/12/2013 by Wayne Brophy FCILT

Generations of British children were brought up believing that wasting food was morally and economically wrong. But it would appear that the misgivings of the post-war generation have not carried on into our modern times of plenty; though the problem is no longer simply a domestic one.

There has always been waste food, and there always will be unless farmers come up with a way of predicting what everyone will be having for dinner for the next year. Thanks to the brilliant revolutions in farming, preserving and the supply chain, we produce so much more food than we need, and it’s reached epic proportions.

Part of the problem is supermarkets who like to have their fruit and veg shelves constantly full. But so much food never gets sold that they dump out-of-date fruit and vegetables – much of which is still perfectly edible – by the tonne. Consumers (who have often been coaxed into overbuying by two-for-one deals) end up themselves throwing shocking amounts away, too.

While we’re never going to eradicate food waste, we can do a number of things to reduce the problem of it ending up in landfill, and they are detailed in ReFood’s recent report Vision 2020: UK Roadmap to Zero Food Waste to Landfill. The report summarises the size of the problem in two stats: we produce 14.8 million tonnes of food waste per annum; and 40% of it ends up in landfill.

First we need to reduce the amount of food wasted. Much edible food is discarded on purely aesthetic purposes, and supermarkets need to ensure the “ugly” fruit and veg still goes on display; food is also thrown away for sell-by purposes, even when it’s still viable.

Second, we need to tackle to problem of over-ordering, and that’s the task of the procurement sector in the retail industry. Food can be acquired from farmers at such knock-down prices that it’s to no significant detriment to accept that there will be a few dozen tonnes of unsold produce each year from a food retailer. Ceasing this philosophy and ordering more in line with reasonable expectations of consumer demand will not only save the retailers money, it’ll reduce waste and CO2 emissions, too. At the very least, excess food that’s still edible should be donated to people who need it or diverted to feeding livestock.

And finally, there is no reason for organic material to go into landfill. We have the infrastructure in place already to separate out different materials and dispose of them separately – in fact, as a nation we’re rather good at it. But for some reason it’s proving to be too much trouble to send food waste to be converted into bio-fertiliser or compost, or even converted into gas or electricity.

Nobody is suggesting it’s a simple problem to tackle. Farmers have sensible reasons for overproducing – it’s impossible to know whether it’s going to be a good growing year or one affected by floods, drought, disease or pests. But what we can do is deal with the problem more intelligently. It’s an issue that everyone can play a part in, but those in retail procurement should recognise that they can play a pivotal role in regulating the flow of food from farm to landfill.

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