The tragedy of food waste

10433265_10152472087051257_9114670192187825949_nHave you ever walked through your local supermarket and thought, “Gosh, look at this plentiful place full of produce!”? Have you ever realised that your local plentiful supermarket is only one such place, in one neighbourhood of one city in one country? In other words, there are millions of supermarkets on the planet brimming with animal products, by-products and cultivated produce…have you ever noticed how supermarkets are empty of food at closing time? No, me neither. And that’s because supermarkets don’t sell all their food at the end of each day and, due to domestic laws, produce which is perfectly edible but exceeds arbitrary sell-by dates will be thrown away.

According to a Guardian article from July 9, the EU wastes approximately 89 million tonnes (that’s 89,000,000,000 kilograms or almost 200,000,000,000 pounds) a year.

Those are staggering numbers, especially given the amount of people that cannot afford fresh food. Most of us take our access to fresh food for granted. An extremely fascinating study by UK-based think thank Overseas Development Institute sheds light on a case of negative feedback: “foods that become cheaper [processed foods] compared to others are likely to be consumed more” and in turn, this drives the prices of certain fresh foods (source).

Over the years, the EU has imposed strict guidelines for what fresh produce needs to look like. In order to make sure all farmers and producers sell similar produce and compete on a level playing field, there are certain standards of colour, weight and shape that fruits and vegetables need to maintain. Aesthetic features, in most cases, are not reflective of quality or nutritional value (unless something is visibly expired), meaning that tonnes of fruits and vegetables that do not meet the criteria can’t be sold.

Thankfully, these rules have been relaxed and only 10 fruits and vegetables are bound by such guidelines, which is that is a step forward.

Food is not only going to waste at the production level, but also at the retailer level. Supermarkets can and should be doing more to make sure food they no longer wish to sell is somehow passed on.

France at the forefront

Although the EU has recently adopted a resolution asking the European Commission to “encourage the creation of agreements” between supermarkets and food charities, this feels like a mere suggestion, not a requirement.
France, on the other hand, seems to be understanding the problem of food waste with a bit more gusto than its neighbours. Large food retailers can receive a fine of up to €75,000 (just over £50,000) for throwing away edible food.

Some supermarkets chains have shown to be very progressive in this matter. French giant Carrefour carries out an extensive programme of food donation and distribution, which, in 2013, was equivalent to 77 million meals. They have also donated over €630,000 (about £445,000) to food banks in four countries.

Not so easy

Unfortunately, the redistribution of food is not always a simple task. There are logistical issues – such as transport or finding recipients who have the facilities to store donated food – which are a hindrance to more action being taken by the supermarkets. More importantly, it’s cheaper for supermarkets to dispose of food than redistribute it.
Despite some difficulties, it can be done, as Carrefour has demonstrated. There are other ways to incentivise distribution: some European countries are helping the problem by offering tax rebates or even refunds to businesses that donate food.

Last but not least

Supermarkets here are, slowly, starting to take the problem seriously. ASDA has pledged £200,000 to pay for the transportation of edible food to FareShare, a charity that seeks to distribute food and works with many charities – but considering ASDA’s 2014 profits were over £700m, we think they could pledge more. There exist other initiatives, such as FoodCycle, a ‘social supermarket’ which aims to open hubs around the UK. They get their surplus from the leading supermarkets and sell it at around a third of the price.

But people do not think this is enough, as recent petitions (1, 2, and 3) have shown. Although the large supermarket chains (Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s Asda and the British Retail Consortium) have made the decision to tackle the issue of food waste in the UK, it does not yet feel that there are concrete strategies in place to reduce the amount of food they get rid of.

Still, the issue is being discussed and will hopefully become one of those things in years to come when we look back with embarrassment that we ever threw away any food at all. But it’s not the future yet, so we need to carry on pushing the supermarket chains for change and we also need to make every effort ourselves, as individuals, to waste as little food as possible.

And the photo?
I took that about a year ago at the Mark & Spencer’s by Cannon Street station in London. I could see staff putting ready meals, sushi and other comestible stuff in clear bin bags. I was a bit shocked and I hoped they were perhaps donating them. I asked a staff member what they were going to do with the food in the bags, “They’re going in the bin.”

Buy Locally?

Now it’s all well and good singing the praises of buying local produce, and supporting local farms – but how feasible is this? You may have seen in our previous post where we interviewed a local pub manager, that sometimes buying local produce just isn’t practical or cost-effective. But what about individuals? Is the picture any different?

We we asked you guys to find out! We asked you about your food purchasing habits, and the results have been interesting… Let’s take a look!

Groceries

We started with the basics – groceries. Where do you get yours? Of our 62 respondents from the community, a massive 92% said they bought theirs from a supermarket. Arguably, this is no surprise. Supermarkets have become massive in the past few decades, and much to the detriment of small businesses. But it’s nice to see at least 5 of you still supporting local business.

Meat

Now meat is a different picture. While we may have opted for convenience when it comes to buying groceries, we still – fortunately – very much have a butcher’s culture in the UK. This is supported by our survey results. Despite an overwhelming majority still going to supermarkets to buy their meat, eight of our respondents are prepared to seek out quality over price buy purchasing from their local butcher’s.

Why?

But why are people leaving behind local business in favour of the quick-fix supermarkets? Convenience. That was the option that came out on top when we asked why. It would seem that “convenience stores” (as they’re called Stateside) are really living up to their name – 80% of people chose that as the reason they shopped there. Cost was also a big one for most people – and the simple truth is, supermarkets are a lot cheaper! And finally, Quality – a sad truth is that a lot of people seem to believe that supermarkets can be better trusted than independents. They see the clean packaging and good branding as an indicator of quality.

We asked you guys what might induce you to buy more locally – here are some of the responses:

  • “[If] it matches the cost of the supermarkets there or there about. I buy fruit and veg from local market stalls but the produce isn’t local but it’s cheap. Budget is my main constraint.”
  • “More availability. Where I live, I have 3 supermarkets within a mile. Don’t even know if there is a market, butchers or grocers in town.”
  • “Better Quality and Price”
  • “Cheaper Produce”
  • “Better advertisement showing locally produce products and where they are available.”
  • “All the butchers round me are halal and I don’t like halal slaughter”
  • I try, but in London it just isn’t convenient, affordable or easily accessible”
  • “Nuffink”