Most countries in Europe and North America waste up to half of their food supplies from the plough to the plate. Whether it’s fresh fruit and vegetables rejected by supermarkets for failing to meet arbitrary cosmetic standards, or manufacturers forced to discard millions of slices of good fresh bread because supermarkets don’t like their sandwiches to be made from the outer slices of a loaf, or whether it’s the waste we all daily witness in our own homes — all of this represents land, water and other resources that could be put to better use than filling rubbish tips with food.
The irrigation water used to grow food that no-one eats would be enough to cover the household needs of 9 billion people using 200 litres a day. Food waste also contributes to climate change: in the UK and US, 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from producing, transporting, storing and preparing food that is never eaten. Most importantly, waste food uses up the world’s limited agricultural land. If rich countries wasted less this could liberate agricultural land for other uses — and this applies even for fresh produce grown and purchased within individual nations. If that food wasn’t being bought and wasted, the land and other resources could be used to grow something else, including food such as cereals that could contribute to much-needed global supplies.
This colossal amount of wasted food is also a scandal in a context where, globally, around a billion people are undernourished. The connection between food profligacy in rich countries and food poverty elsewhere in the world is neither simple nor direct, but it is nonetheless real. Obviously, the solution is not for rich countries to send old tomatoes or stale bread over to poor countries after saving them from the rubbish bin. This spurious connection assumes that the food in rich people’s homes or over-stocked supermarkets had no other potential destiny than ending up in rich countries in the first place. Cynics will argue that there is no connection between food being wasted in rich countries and the lack of food on the other side of the world. Their argument may have been stronger in the past, when famines were sometimes more to do with local conditions — such as war or natural disasters — than global shortages. But there has long been a connection, and the food crisis of 2007–8 and more recent price-spikes partly caused by global shortages of cereals has made this even more evident. It is now abundantly clear that fluctuations in consumption in rich countries affect the global availability of food and this impacts directly on poor people’s ability to buy enough food to survive.
In the UK, 5.8 million people live in deep poverty and this figure is on the rise. Food redistribution charities in the UK have been struggling to cope with the massively increased demands on their services. In 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide, and they anticipate that this will rise to over 230,000 during 2012-13, with 250 food banks currently launched by the Trussel Trust alone. FareShare provided 8.6 million meals in 2012 for 36,500 people each day. But food redistribution charities like FareShare are desperate for more fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement the manufactured foods they have traditionally accessed.
Yet, UK farmers often have no choice but to waste between 20-40% of their produce, sometimes even 100%. Most of the time this food is lost because of excessively high cosmetic quality standards and overproduction to meet supermarket contracts. The scale of losses induced by overly strict aesthetic standards was hinted at in the summer of 2012, when supermarkets temporarily relaxed their standards under pressure from the National Farmers Union due to extreme UK weather conditions which meant that UK produce was wonkier than usual. This saved an estimated “300,000 tonnes of produce”, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.