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Like many countries, the UK is confronting its food- waste problem from the farm to the supermarket to the restaurant to residents’ refrigerators. Wasting less food means feeding more people. Writer Cat Allen explains.
Text: Cat Allen
Country: United Kingdom

e’ve all been there, sitting in our favourite restaurant when the mouth-watering food arrives. But the portions are so huge, you can’t possibly finish everything. Unfortunately, often that food ends up in the bin; unintentionally contributing to the UK’s estimated 4.2 million tonne annual food waste problem.

You could take a doggy bag for the leftovers, just one of many ways to combat the issue. Food waste and sustainability is a hot topic right now, with everyone from celebrity chefs to the government aiming to raise awareness and change attitudes, not just regarding avoidable food waste, but also where our food is coming from and how it arrives on our plate.

With the world’s population estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, concerns as to how millions of extra people will be fed have been raised. However, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has reported that around the world, a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. The answer is not producing more food, but to stop wasting what we already have. To put these numbers into perspective, 200 million people could be fed with the food that is currently being wasted in Europe.

Food waste doesn’t just happen when too much food is ordered at a restaurant. The entire food supply chain from farm to fork is filled with waste. Some is expected, such as banana peels and used tea bags, and other times it’s completely avoidable. Poor storage by farmers, time-consuming packaging processes, and the throwing away of food by consumers are just a few of the ways waste occurs. The UK’s supermarkets have been in the media spotlight with shocking waste statistics regarding poor and irresponsible levels of food donation, waste policies, and redistribution efforts.

Best before” dates, a legal requirement on perishable foods, also receive criticism. An estimated 90% of food that is thrown away is in fact perfectly fine to consume; it’s simply deemed “out of date” prematurely. Supermarkets have received further critiquing in the UK’s media that this could be done intentionally to encourage consumers to throw food away and buy again. The Love Food, Hate Waste campaign, launched in 2007 by the Waste & Resources Action Programme, is rallying to raise awareness in Britain’s households and is involved in efforts to abolish the “use by” date, similar to the “best before” date, deeming them a major cause of food waste. “Dumpster diving”, when people dig in the bins of food retailers, has also helped to spread the word that food officially “out of date” is often perfectly fine to consume.

In response to the negative press, or perhaps in a bid to protect their stake in an extremely competitive market, supermarkets in the UK have been making efforts to solve the problem. One launched a year-long experiment involving an entire town, studying what households were wasting. Others have launched food- sharing apps, price reductions in fresh produce and increased their charitable donations.

Despite these efforts, the media loves a villain. After the food and environment charity, Feedback, reported British farmers were being forced to dispose of up to 20% of their crops due to strict cosmetic standards, public uproar ensued. One farmer, responsible for growing 10% of the carrots sold in Britain, revealed to the press that he is forced to dispose of 3,000 tonnes of perfectly good carrots each year because they are too long or not straight enough. Soon after, several supermarket chains started to sell “ugly veg”, giving the wonky, unwanted vegetables of the country a fridge to go to. Supermarkets bear the brunt of public outrage, and the launch of each new campaign hits the press automatically. Any chain that doesn’t conform is named and shamed. How much their efforts to improve are publicity fuelled or a genuine attempt to combat the food waste problem depends on personal cynicism.

So how did we get to the point where so many of us are reaching for the perfect potato and ignoring the misshaped one? Until 2009 the EU had strict regulations on how fresh produce should look, reportedly for ease of packaging. Online “food porn” perfection has also undoubtedly played its part in elevated consumer expectations. The good news is, Love Food, Hate Waste head, Emma Marsh, believes that over recent years there’s been a shift in attitudes: “The public is increasingly conscious of food waste, both in their own homes and in the supply chain,” she says. “People know that a carrot or potato still tastes good, whatever it looks like!”

Attitudes have also shifted towards more sustainable thinking. Britons have long been growing their own vegetables and shopping at local markets, and it’s becoming more commonplace. Today sustainability is a buzzword, and everyone from supermarkets to celebrity chefs are jumping on the bandwagon. As it’s more normal to ask where produce has come from, nowadays it’s not uncommon to see someone refraining from buying something that’s travelled too far. Shops are encouraging, and even celebrating, the purchase of British-grown produce, and eating seasonally is being featured on menus across the country.

Eating locally is a big step towards achieving sustainability. More farmers’ markets are available as people are asking where their food is coming from and are willing to pay more in return for locally grown, seasonal produce. Allotments and vegetable patches are being used anew, and it’s easy to find potted herbs in supermarkets, a more sustainable version than pre-cut packages.

Although farmer’s markets allow consumers sustainability satisfaction, eating locally often means higher prices, which isn’t an option for everyone. For this reason many households still rely on supermarkets for fresh produce. Is it the fault of these grocery conglomerates that are so willing to import produce from afar to satisfy the out-of- season needs of their customers? Should consumers expect to be able to buy asparagus in November when it is only locally in season in March? Would there be outrage if people could only buy certain foods at certain times of the year?

Over recent years numerous celebrity chefs have started talking about sustainability. Jamie Oliver is a big supporter of the “wonky” fruit and vegetables campaign, and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, the chef behind Devon’s sustainable mecca River Cottage, is a leading ambassador for eating seasonally, locally, and responsibly. Last year TeaTime visited them for a dining experience cooked entirely with ingredients grown either on their land or that had travelled a few miles from the neighbouring farm or fishmonger.

Near the beginning of Whittingstall’s sustainability crusade, the chef stood at the entrance of a leading supermarket where he politely engaged with members of the public. He then proceeded to throw away a third of their packaged salad, 25% of their carrots and so on, correlating with figures of Britain’s average household food waste. He did so whilst telling them, “You’re going to throw it away anyway!” The shoppers weren’t too happy seeing their newly purchased food thrown away before they even had the chance to waste it.

A recent proposal from the EU has released a plan for reducing our food waste by 30% by 2025. Hearing the word “sustainability” is now a daily occurrence, and thanks to the endeavours of various charities, the government, and the media publishing numerous reports and statistics; the attitudes and practises of supermarkets and consumers are changing. Whether it’s fridge cameras telling us what we already have whilst we food-shop, celebrity chefs spreading the word, or supermarket chains making concerted efforts to tackle the problem, food waste and sustainability is staying in the press. Whether it’s talking to our friends about it, finding our local market or simply thinking about where our food is coming from, it all makes a difference. Now it’s just a case of resisting that November asparagus feast!

Food sustainability in numbers:

● £13 billion ($16.6bn USD) of food was wasted in the UK in 2015, approximately 7.3 million tonnes.
● The average person wastes £200 worth of food annually.
● It is estimated that the equivalent of 1 in 6 meals served in the UK is wasted.
● In Europe and North America, waste per capita is between 95-115 kg a year. In sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, it is only 6-11 kg a year.

Food sustainability Tip:

● Learn what is in season where you live.
● Eat locally and everyone wins: the environment, the local economy and your health.
● Find the nearest fresh produce market.
● Carry a small Tupperware with you for any leftovers when eating out.
● Decide the meals you are going to cook and buy your groceries accordingly.


How ugly vegetables can feed the planet

The world's population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. There is growing concern about feeding those millions of extra people. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, a third of all the food we produce around the world for human consumption is wasted. The answer then, is not to produce more food, but to waste less.

When you order food at a restaurant the portions are tipically huge; and what you don"t eat, usually ends up in the bin. One way to combat this problem is to take a doggy bag for the leftovers. But food waste doesn't just happen when you order food at a restaurant. The entire food supply chain from farm to fork is filled with waste.

Poor storage by farmers, time-consuming packaging processes, and consumers throwing away food are just a few of the ways waste occurs. Supermarkets have shocking statistics regarding poor and irresponsible levels of food donation, waste policies, and redistribution efforts.

There is a legal requirement in the UK where all perishable foods must have a 'best before' date. But many of these foods are actually still okay to eat. Some people believe supermarkets set the date too early to intentionally encourage consumers to throw food away and buy again.

Another problem is that supermarkets tend to sell only "perfect" produce. Some farmers claim they are forced to dispose of 20% of their crops due to strict cosmetic standards. For this reason several supermarket chains are now selling "ugly veg".

What can you do to help avoid food waste? Don't expect your produce to look perfect, buy wonky vegetables. You can also have a vegetable patch to grow your own vegetables and herbs. Or purchase your produce from a farmers’ market and eat mostly what"s in season to avoid purchasing food that travels from far away.



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