When there’s no waste, there’s a way to net zero

28th Oct 20 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor, Head of Policy

Addressing food waste is a no regrets policy option on the road to net zero - but it needs a regulatory approach.

Feedback’s policy brief, When there’s no waste, there’s a way (to net zero), was published today.

It is hardly controversial to say that we should address food waste: in fact, this is a rare environmental issue where there seems to be resounding agreement from politicians, the public and the food industry. However, this consensus has not translated into meaningful action – and to tackle Climate Change this needs to happen.

Food waste represents a significant climate and environmental burden – both in terms of direct greenhouse gas emissions generated from growing, processing or disposing of food that is wasted, and in terms of the land use opportunity cost. Globally, growing food that is ultimately wasted uses up to 28% of the world’s agricultural area. In a world that is increasingly land-hungry, as our agricultural frontiers expand and demand grows for space for rewilding and afforestation, food waste is quite simply a waste of space. Based on a recent Life Cycle Assessment, Feedback calculated that if we halved UK food waste and reforested liberated domestic grassland, we could deliver around 4% of the UK’s emissions cuts to reach net zero. Compared to more controversial measures, such as reducing meat consumption, food waste would seem a no brainer.

But we are not taking full advantage of this climate opportunity, by a long shot. At a corporate level, voluntary business-led action has led to a measurement and management-oriented approach, in which progress has been  slow – as we explain in our new policy brief, retail food waste has reduced by around 0.5% per year since 2009, and while manufacturing waste has fallen much faster, waste in the hospitality and food service sector is estimated to have increased by nearly 20%. Government has largely ceded the food waste space to both corporates, who are lauded (and even publicly funded) for new schemes to give away their surplus, and civil society, who redistribute vast quantities of food to those in need, effectively providing a free disposal service for industry surplus. Food surplus and food poverty are seen as two sides of the same coin  with little attention to the entirely separate root causes of both problems, even as a debate on poverty and food access reignites around the English government’s failure to provide Free School Meals during the half-term holidays.

It’s time for more evidence of what drives this problem and what works to solve it. Food waste is first and foremost not a moral or social issue, but an environmental one. While less effective at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions than switching to more sustainable diets, food waste is one of the major levers available to high-income countries to reduce their climate burdens. Yet no higher income countries, including the UK, which prides itself on international leadership on food waste, has included this issue as a part of a systematic food system mitigation policy, or included it in their Nationally Determined Contribution – the pledge each country makes to bring down emissions to levels required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. With COP26 being hosted in Glasgow next year there has never been a better opportunity for  for food waste to step out of the wings and make its debut on the climate action stage.

In Feedback’s policy brief, we diagnose some of the reasons for slow progress so far, including:

  • The limitations of a voluntary approach – while business agreements and targets have generated considerable progress, they have also run up against some integral challenges and limitations. These include a tendency for ambition to be lowered to suit the least engaged participants, for action by industry leaders to obscure the lack of action by others, and for low participation rates to stymy cross-industry action: 15 years after the first UK food waste agreement, under 10% of major food businesses have committed to even full transparency on their food waste figures.
  • A focus on behaviour, not environments – it has been difficult to ascertain why our society and economy wastes so much food, largely because there has been a focus on small tweaks and technical fixes, rather than a deep look at the ways in which our ‘waste-ogenic’ environment has come about (to borrow from the public health term ‘obseogenic environment’ – an set of environmental conditions which contribute to and encourage obesity). Waste is embedded in modern food cultures which to a large extent have been shaped by the major food businesses in our supply chain – supermarkets.
  • Reluctance to imposes costs on food businesses – while food waste is a form of pollution, and thus should rightly be subject to the ‘polluter pays’ principle, policy frameworks have largely allowed and encouraged the idea that food businesses should be praised or even paid to continue to generate large volumes of waste, so long as that surplus is reabsorbed into the food system via charitable food redistribution. There has been little policy attention on how penalties and incentives could overlap to ensure food businesses take fiscal responsibility for their waste both up and down the supply chain.
  • Conflating redistribution with prevention – Surplus should be used to feed people, where it is safe and healthy to do so. However, food waste is not a solution to food poverty, and by framing action on food waste primarily around redistribution, public policy misses an important first step to prevent food waste occurring in the first place, including by looking at causes throughout the supply chain, such as on farms.
  • Reluctance to address root causes – Food waste is a problem of the supermarket age: today four retailers control 66% of the groceries market share and at least three out of four citizens visited a supermarket at least once in the last week. The scale and pervasiveness of today’s food waste is simply not something that previous generations, who shopped differently, would recognise. Amid talk of supermarket leadership on food waste, there needs to be recognition of the reality that there is no financial incentive for retailers to minimise waste in households – quite the reverse in fact. Dividing the value of household food waste by the market share of the major retailers tell us that food waste in homes was worth up to £4bn to Tesco alone in 2015. At the beginning of the supply chain, on farms, there is still reluctance to fund the proper measurement and analysis which would allow us to understand and address why around an estimated quarter of UK food waste occurs in primary production.

A serious policy framework to address waste is needed, and crucially, this must incorporate an ambitious regulatory approach. Voluntary business action has got us so far, but to realise the true potential of food waste reduction for climate mitigation, we now need a more comprehensive approach, one that can only be delivered by government, through waste, farming and food policy. Below we set out a summary of our recommendations.

We face an important moment of opportunity: the UK plans to release its Nationally Determined Contribution later this year – our plan for reaching our net zero national target and our flag in the sand inspiring other countries to reach for greater ambition ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. We urge the UK government to take this opportunity to be the first higher income country to integrate comprehensive food systems policy, including a serious plan to address food waste, into our national climate policy. At COP26, food systems must be on the agenda, and no better place to start than with food waste.

  • Integrate ambitious food waste reduction targets, in line with the goal to halve food waste throughout the supply chain by 2030 against a 2015 baseline, into climate strategies and legislation:
    • Adopt an ambitious food waste goal in the UK’s 2020 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), including a national binding target to reduce food waste (both edible and inedible) by 50% from farm to fork by 2030, against 2015 baselines.
    • Model and implement an ambitious policy pathway to achieve a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030.
  • Harness and enforce existing waste legislation and implement the ambitions set out in the Waste and Resources Strategy:
    • Develop an effective, UK-wide food waste data baseline, including funding top-down approaches to collecting data in hard to measure sectors such as hospitality and on farms.
    • Bring forward the government’s plans to make food waste reporting and reduction targets mandatory for all large businesses, in line with an ambitious UK target to reduce food waste from farm to fork by 50% by 2030, against a 2015 baseline.
    • Put in place the regulatory, fiscal and enforcement regime to operationalise the food use hierarchy, as per the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
    • Extend the government’s ambition to eliminate food waste in landfill or to incineration by 2030, to support a genuinely circular economy, and in the short term, increase taxes on landfill and incineration.
  • Capitalise on the opportunities of new food and farming policy to support food waste prevention on farms:
    • Instrumentalise the provisions of the Agriculture Bill and Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to both incentivise and enable the measurement of on-farm food waste and to incentivise the reduction of food surplus occurring in primary production.
  • Harness market frameworks and business practices for food waste prevention:
    • Ensure UK and overseas farmers, including indirect suppliers, can have recourse to the Groceries Code Adjudicator for waste incurred on their farms as a result of unfair trading practices.
    • Undertake a post-Covid review of the groceries supply chain to identify points of intervention to increase the diversity and resilience of supply chains and reduce waste.
  • Put in place the conditions for transformative change in the groceries market:
    • Enable greater citizen agency over their food.
    • Support the shortening of supply chains and more regional food production and distribution and the regional use of surplus crops to allow better food access.
    • Support the diversification of the food sector, boosting the scale and reach of alternative business forms to displace the dominance of the supermarket.

Read the full policy brief and recommendations.

What can you do next?
How long does it take: 5 minutes

Setting an ambitious goal to halve food waste, as quickly as possible, can help the UK take a big step towards achieving our climate goals. We face a golden opportunity: Boris Johnson is announcing the UK’s climate plan in December, and this is the perfect time to urge him to include ambitious action on food waste.

Write to the Prime Minister
How long does it take: 3 minutes

Food waste has been on the corporate policy agenda for years - but how much real progress has been made, and what is the role of government, both local and national, in creating change? In this webinar, Feedback and Sustain team up to take a close look at the role of food waste, and wider sustainable food system measures, in an effective policy for the climate emergency.

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