by Rowan Van Tromp

Weighing in at an estimated 15m tonnes per annum, the UK’s food waste mountain is an issue that is finally been given the kind of attention it warrants, thanks to the persistence of campaigning groups like Feedback and The Real Junk Food Project, who both featured on Channel Four’s series Hugh’s War on Waste – the latest in a long line of environmental food campaigns lead by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Launched in conjunction with the series, a petition by This Is Rubbish has gained nearly a quarter of a million signatures. In an open letter to the CEO’s of the ‘Big 4’ supermarkets, it calls on retailers to collaborate with each other, as well as WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme), to measure on-farm food waste so that it can be benchmarked by 2018 and ambitious targets can be set to reduce it by 2025.

According to WRAP, a charity funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), around 3m tonnes of food is wasted on UK farms each year. But, for all intents and purposes, this is not much more than a guess. There is a distinct lack of reliable data presented in support of this assertion, when compared with other sectors investigated.

no mention is made of wastage caused by supermarkets rejecting produce on purely aesthetical grounds

On their website WRAP acknowledge the lack of evidence, whilst attributing on-farm losses to “Many complex factors, including unexpected changes in consumer demand, poor weather and labour shortages.”  While these are indeed valid contributory factors, no mention is made of wastage caused by supermarkets rejecting produce on purely aesthetical grounds, despite overwhelming evidence indicating that this is the crux of the issue.

(Twisted nature: Food waste costs the average UK household £480 per year © Imperfect Picks)

One report, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), asserted that up to 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of such practices, whilst research by the Soil Association indicated that between 20% and 40% of UK fruit and vegetables were routinely rejected, because they are misshapen or discoloured, before reaching shops. These figures were confirmed in an on-the-ground investigation at the Hammond’s parsnip farm in Norfolk, for Hugh’s War on Waste, which unveiled losses of between 30 and 40% of their crop. As well as stringent cosmetic standards, they also attributed last minute order cancellations to their high level of wastage.

So if the evidence is there, it begs the question – why has it not yet been collated? Perhaps the issue is funding; in their petition This Is Rubbish deem it ‘vital’ that this research be paid for by retailers –  which would be quite an extraordinary move, given that they would essentially be funding a study that could only reasonably conclude that their own practices are the problem. So with that unlikely, what about WRAP? Why haven’t they carried out the study? And why have they omitted the leading cause of on-farm waste from their list of contributory factors?

The 2013 review of Defra’s funding for WRAP, which resulted in a 40% cut in its income, provides valuable insight into these anomalies. As part of the review WRAP’s activities were assessed against three guiding principles:

  • Government should only intervene where there is a true market failure, or where behavioural barriers could justify intervention
  • Where we do intervene we must secure good value for money
  • Future funding for WRAP should reflect Defra’s ministerial priorities

What’s clear is that the food waste scandal is an obvious instance of market failure. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall put it: “A system of deliberate over-production suits the supermarkets, because it gives them flexibility – they can play one farmer off against another. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system.” Despite this, much of WRAP’s on-farm ‘intervention’ to date has focused on clearing up market failures while they continue to occur, as opposed to addressing the underlying causes to prevent them happening. This has been underpinned by their extensive presentation (and funding) of anaerobic digestion as an on-farm solution to this waste epidemic.

In doing this they have effectively legitimised the wasteful policies causing the problem and whilst quite obviously failing to provide value for money for farmers, who are consistently losing out.

If Defra were really serious about reducing on-farm waste the obvious thing to do would be to bring forward legislation to outright ban the practice of stipulating cosmetic standards in supplier contracts altogether. But in reality the ministerial priorities of Defra are to avoid doing anything that could upset UK Supermarket PLC, regardless of the impacts on farmers and environment, and this would really upset them.

Whilst they carefully attempt to manage opinion through vague public commitments — the most recent of which was made at last month’s cosy annual neo-liberal get-together in Davos — the truth is that supermarkets thrive in presiding over a system of deliberate waste and have no desire to change. Consequently, cosmetic standards have become one giant elephant in the room for WRAP, hence their deliberate omission as a cause of on-farm waste.

(© Chris King Photography)

Thankfully, progress is being made in opposition quarters. Whilst it does not go as far as an outright ban on cosmetic standards, the Food Waste reduction bill — proposed by Labour MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Kerry McCarthy — shows a strong understanding of the inherent causes of food waste and aims to bring forward reasonable measures to put an end to this absurd manifestation of the inequitable economic system we live within.

We can only hope it passes its second reading on the 4th of March. You can support the bill and keep up to date with its progress here.

Featured Image © Chris King Photography

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