Resource Use

Lords call for ‘urgent action’ to reduce food waste

The House of Lords EU Committee is calling on the European Commission (EC), the UK government and ‘big retailers’ to take ‘urgent action’ to crack down on food waste in Europe, as the ‘waste of environmental and economic resources represented by food waste is a serious cost to society’.

The calls come following the publication of a report on food waste prevention based on responses to a call for evidence that took place between August 2013 and January 2014.

Commissioned in response to EU policies to reduce food waste (such as the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, which states that disposal of edible food waste should be halved by 2020), the ‘Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Preventionreport takes into account a range of issues surrounding the food waste debate across Europe, including:

  • the challenges surrounding a common definition of ‘food waste’;
  • the reliability and amount of data and evidence collected on food waste;
  • the possible inclusion of an EU target; food waste along the entire supply chain;
  • the impact of EU regulation;
  • respecting the ‘waste hierarchy’; and
  • what, if any, strategic role the EU should play.

To overcome the issues on food waste prevention the committee prescribes a range of ‘practical options’, which it says it hopes will ‘move the food waste debate on from rhetoric to action’.

It is hoped that ‘both the current and incoming [European] Commission will take note’ of the report, and ‘inspire governments of individual member states and stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain’ to take action.

Report details

According to EU figures cited by the committee, ‘at least 90 million tonnes’ of food is wasted across the EU each year, a figure that could rise to approximately 126 million tonnes by 2020 if ‘no action is taken’.

The committee adds that the carbon footprint of worldwide food waste is equivalent to ‘twice the global greenhouse gas emission of all road transportation in the USA’, and that it represents an financial, as well as environmental, ‘loss of resources’. (Looking to the UK, the report highlights that 15 million tonnes of food is wasted every year, equating to a financial loss to business of ‘at least £5 billion’ per year.)

According to the committee, food waste arisings are being triggered by a range of factors, including:

A lack of common understanding of the definition of food waste

The EU Committee states that sometimes the term food waste is applied erroneously, citing that that food grown but not harvested due to adverse weather conditions should not be considered as food waste. Conversley, it argues that food not harvested for other reasons, such as change in demand, should be included within the definition of food waste.

It is therefore calling for a move away from ‘a universal food waste definition that works across the food supply chain and at different geographical scales’, as it reportedly ‘defies the complexities of the European food supply chain’. The committee recommends that the EC should instead ‘standardise approaches to defining different material and waste flows at each stage of the food supply chain, including unavoidable waste’.

‘Fragmented and untargeted’ efforts to reduce food waste

According to the committee, there is no ‘clear and urgent strategic direction’ from the EC and member states to reduce and prevent food waste, with only the FUSIONS project representing a strategic approach to food waste prevention.

As such, it is calling on the new EC to publish a five-year strategy on food waste prevention within the first six months of its office. This, the report states, should set out a roadmap to ‘ensure that best practice identified in one member state can be easily translated into action elsewhere’.

It also recommends a non-legislative approach to be taken initially (such as by encouraging member states to develop ‘measurable food waste prevention plans’), moving to a legislative approach if there in insufficient action taken within five years of strategies being published. It also advises the EC to set ‘aspirational’ food waste targets to ‘help focus member state attention and encourage efforts to prevent food waste throughout the supply chain’.

Further to this, the report recommends that the EC establishes a cross-departmental working group to ‘assess the impact on food waste of [the EC’s] policies’.

Retailer promotions that can lead to food waste

According to WRAP evidence, retailer actions can pass food waste on to the consumer through incentives and promotions such as ‘buy one, get one free’ (BOGOF), which ‘encourage consumers to purchase [food] in large volumes’.

The committee suggests these retailers ‘rethink’ incentives like ‘buy one get one free’ and ‘assume a far greater responsibility for the prevention of food waste in the home’.

The report also calls for supermarkets to ‘work harder’ to avoid cancelling orders of food that has already been grown by producers, which can lead to unsold but edible food being ‘ploughed back into the fields’ or left unharvested. This is estimated to waste ‘millions of tonnes’ of food each year.

Other EC recommendations listed by the committee include:

  • using tax incentives that encourage retailers to ensure unsold food that is still fit for human consumption is eaten by people, by, for example, working with food banks, rather than sending it to compost, for energy recovery (for example AD facilities), or landfill;
  • urgently reviewing ‘the science relating to the feeding of catering waste to animals and of non-ruminant processed animal proteins to non-ruminants, such as pigs’;
  • ensuring that, in its review of the Packaging and Waste Packaging Directive, provisions are not introduced that may have ‘the unintended consequences of discouraging innovative packaging that might help to prevent food waste’; and
  • publishing guidance on the application of the waste hierarchy to food.

Protecting WRAP’s resources

Looking to the UK, the committee warns that due to government budget cuts, there could be a risk to the UK’s food waste prevention work through the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

It reads: ‘In the UK, there is a high risk of false economy if the cuts to WRAP’s funding to support food waste prevention ultimately lead to resource inefficiency in terms of economic costs to businesses and households, and environmental costs from greenhouse gas emissions and water and energy consumption.

‘We therefore recommend that the UK government work closely with WRAP to assess the impact of the budget cut on WRAP’s ability to contribute to food waste prevention, particularly in the context of its unique ability to work along the whole supply chain.’

There are also calls for the UK government to develop a ‘best practice model’ for separate food waste collections, at both household and commercial level, for councils throughout England.

'An absolutely shocking waste of resources'

Speaking after the launch of the report, Chairman of the EU Committee, Baroness Scott of Needham Market, commented:“Food waste in the EU and the UK is clearly a huge issue. Not only is it morally repugnant, but it has serious economic and environmental implications. The fact that 90 million tonnes of food is wasted across the EU each year shows the extent of the problem and explains why we are calling for urgent action.

“Globally, consumers in industrialised nations waste up to 222 million tonnes of food a year, which is equivalent to nearly the entire level of net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.

 “We were shocked at the extent of food waste in the EU. Especially given the current economic challenges the EU faces, it is an absolutely shocking waste of resources. Some efforts are already being made, which is very positive, but much more can be done, and so we are calling on the EU, the government, businesses and consumers to make sure it is.”

Dr. Liz Goodwin, WRAP CEO, added: “We were pleased to have been able to provide evidence to the inquiry, drawing on our work to reduce food waste since 2007. The House of Lords report is thoughtful and considered, and raises some challenging ideas, as well as some big issues that are critical to tackling the global problem of food waste.

“We know through WRAP research that in the UK alone we waste a staggering 15 million tonnes of food each year. Great work is being done to tackle the problem, including WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign and through our Courtauld Commitment, but there’s still much more to do. I have set out a vision to halve avoidable household food waste in the UK by 2025. We can do this by working together in a concerted effort, rolling out more widely the initiatives already under way and spreading best practice. We can all make a difference to impact global food security.

“WRAP is committed to preventing food waste... Budgets are reducing as governments work to tackle the budget deficit, but I have said that tackling food waste will remain a key focus of our work both in the UK and abroad. We are committed to making a big impact.”

This is the second call for action to come out of the House of Lords, after the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee called on the UK government to create a 'waste champion' in the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills.

This ‘champion’ wouldtake on the job of developing a ‘brass from muck’ bioeconomy that could see ‘enormous economic benefits as well as a considerable number of green jobs’.

Read the ‘Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Preventionreport.