By Mike Small

The whole world seems to have suddenly woken up to the fact of food waste. Wow. How did that happen? The study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers blamed poor storage, strict sell-by dates and fussy consumers for the huge piles of food discarded each year in the western world.

In the media frenzy that’s followed no-one seems to be thinking about the role of supermarkets. Not quite true. The Herald’s film writer (?) Alison Rowat wrote:

Due to supermarkets imposing strict standards on size, shape and colour, anything out of the ordinary is rejected. The IME reckons 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is turned down for such reasons. How do we like them apples? Not much is the answer. It is a scandal which exposes Western attitudes to food, the dominance of supermarkets and our general reluctance to value the simple and wholesome over the expensive and manufactured.

That’s about it.

Everyone else was focusing on us dumb consumers. But the reality is that we have allowed a few companies, ‘the big four’, to utterly dominate our food system. Now we stand, dazed and confused, at the obscenity of food waste. We shouldn’t be: that’s the system. Supermarkets are designed to get you to buy stuff you don’t need. That’s how they make their money. Why is this a surprise?

In Britain a new Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Asda opens every other day. There are just over 8,000 supermarkets in the UK, and they account for 97% of total grocery sales. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons take 76% of that market. One pound in every seven spent in Britain goes to Tesco alone.

So yes let’s get angry about food waste. But you need to ask: who controls the food system?

Remember, Methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. Yes food waste is an ethical issue, but not just one about hunger, this is also a climate change issue.

Is there a hierarchy to structured profligacy? According to Tristam Stuart, author of ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’ there is:

“The Co-op is the best performing supermarket, 27 per cent more efficient than average. Sainsbury’s is the worst, apparently 14 per cent more wasteful than the average and 55 per cent worse than the Co-op. Morrisons and Tesco are about average and Waitrose and Asda are slightly more wasteful than average and around 47 per cent worse than the Co-op.”

Is there a better way? Of course there is. In Japan and Taiwan the government requires food businesses to reduce food waste by 65%. They also feed waste to their pigs, a practice we banned after the Foot and Mouth outbreak, a classic example of our dysfunctional food system turning in on itself. We can’t do something that is common sense because the rest of our food system is so rotten.

Here’s three killer food waste facts:

  1. There are nearly one billion malnourished people in the world, but the approximately 40 million tonnes of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to satisfy the hunger of every one of them.
  2. If we planted trees on land currently used to grow unnecessary surplus and wasted food, this would offset a theoretical maximum of 100% of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
  3. All the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.


One Comment
  • Luke January 18, 2013 at 05:27

    I’m an Earth scientist, and I know only too well what a largely made-up hoax the whole “human-caused global warming” business is (and it IS a business). Air entering the U.S. from the NW actually contains more CO2 than when it leaves to the SE.* Yes, you heard that right. The U.S. is a net reducer of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, despite our significant (if hardly unique) use of fossil fuels. This is due to two things we do. One is our landfilling large amounts of cellulose, rather than burning or recycling (both relatively similiar environmentally). The other is our (as unsung as it is massively successful) national reforestation, where more of our country is wooded now than was in 1900.

    Thus, the U.S. is not part of the greenhouse gas problem, unlike Europe, Russia, India, China**, or the bulk of the Third World. All those other places need and deserve the Kyoto Treaty; we don’t.

    *Source: the book “Hard Green” by Peter Huber.

    **India and China are cranking out CFC-using refrigerators and freezers by the millions, thus making programs by Western nations to cut back on their own use of CFCs ultimately pointless.