I leaned back in my chair with a feeling of contentment. SWMBO and I were sitting in the snug of one of our nearby village pubs, and I was now comfortably replete after noshing an exceptionally large Sunday Roast lunch.
This pub is renowned locally for its excellent food, well-kept ales, and quaint, comfy surroundings. The staff, all of whom were youngsters, were polite, attentive, and friendly.
Additionally, I had other reasons for using this pub. They have a policy of only using locally-sourced ingredients for all of their menu items. So, my roast beef was from a breeding butchery near Southampton, the vegetables were from a local farm, and the guest beers that I chose were from either the triple fff* brewery, based in Alton, or the Hepworth brewery in Pulborough, just across the county border in West Sussex.
I am currently trying to persuade them to stock some of the really good ales made by the Firebird Brewery in Rudgwick, also in West Sussex.
I really like the idea of supporting local business, and helping to reduce my food miles, and my personal carbon footprint.
I was stuffed full. Yet the side dishes containing more vegetables and condiments and sauces were also still stuffed full, despite SWMBO and I laying into them with such gusto. I felt quite guilty about this, and knew that I was wasting perfectly good food.
In my rural area, the waste wouldn’t be quite such a problem, as some of it would probably go back into the farming system to be used as animal feed, but in towns and cities, this would all go straight into landfill.
I wondered to what extent we as a nation were wasting.
What I discovered was truly staggering.
In the UK alone, we waste approximately 10 million tonnes of perfectly useable food every year! Alarmingly, less than 1% of that is recycled in any meaningful way.
At the top of our “oh, just chuck it out” list was bread, with 900,000 tonnes wasted each year – that’s about 24 million slices that are sent to landfill. A lot of sandwiches, by anybody’s standard.
Add that to 5.8 million potatoes, and a huge volume of other vegetables and fruits, and it’s easy to see that we have a serious problem.
According to research conducted by the University of Edinburgh, about 33% of farm produce is wasted for aesthetic reasons. Supermarkets usually have contractual requirements for their vegetables and fruit, that specify minimum sizes, dimensions, weights, and appearance.
This is driven by their perceptions on customer requirements, but, to be honest, the shape of my carrots, or a blemish on the skin of an apple aren’t overly high on my list of priorities.
As a side issue, I have never once been canvassed for my opinions by any supermarket chain.
A third of all UK-grown, perfectly edible fruits and vegetables are rejected by our supermarket buyers for not meeting their specifications, and so they are wasted. They are probably just ploughed back into the land – and all this in a country where we now run food banks for those who are in desperate need.
This MUST change. The global food system produces about 25% – 30% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), and agricultural supply chains use up to 70% of our freshwater reserves. Every tonne of food waste that goes to landfill sites will generate about 4.2 tonnes of GHGs. We must grow less and waste less.
But I digress. So, back to my sumptuous pub meal.
The hospitality industry wastes over a million tonnes of food because of providing over-generous portions. This is a tricky issue to address.
The corporate mindset seems to be that customer satisfaction is better served by plating up too large a portion and having some waste, rather than serving a portion that is perceived by the customer as being too small.
Maybe a mental reset is required. The hospitality sector, pubs, bistros, restaurants etc., should start serving smaller portions, and tell customers that if they would like more side orders of vegetables and sauces, then they may ask for them free of charge.
So far, most that I have written is related to commercial food waste. Now have a think about the amount of food that you personally waste in your own homes.
For every 13 million tonnes of food waste generated, 7 million tonnes is wasted by people like you and I!
That is the equivalent of throwing away one full bag of groceries in every five bags with which you leave the supermarket!
Various initiatives have been set up by several charities, such as Feedback Global’s “The Pig Idea”, which attempts to change the law preventing waste food products from being fed to pigs.
This law was originally passed to prevent contaminated edible waste from entering the food chain for pigs, which was thought to have caused an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease.
This was enshrined into EU law in 2002, but now that the UK has left federal Europe, it is possible for the UK Government to consider rescinding this law, subject to animal welfare standards being maintained to ensure the quality of any food waste to be fed to pigs.
Should this happen, the UK could simply revert to the centuries-old practice of feeding waste food to pigs.
The food waste generated by the food manufacturing, catering and retail sectors (which would normally be destined for landfill) could potentially be reduced by about 2.5 million tonnes per year – a drop of 20%.
This is staggering!
The United Nations has stated that if all farmers globally were to feed their livestock on waste food and agricultural by-products, then enough grain could be liberated from the system to feed an estimated 3 billion people.
Supermarkets are also responsible for a lot of food waste at the opposite end of the process. Not only do they reject perfectly edible foodstuffs at the farm, but they also waste perfectly edible food that they over-order, and then just can’t sell!
We have all seen it. Yellow labels on food that is “out of date” being sold at heavy discounts. Like me, you have probably taken advantage of some low prices for food that is at the end of its shelf life.
Sadly, a lot of yellow-labelled goods remain unsold, and are therefore thrown into the skip (I have watched this happen at a local supermarket), destined for landfill somewhere.
This is a sad situation, especially as food poverty affects 8% of the UK population, some 5 million people.
To put this into perspective, my dear old Mum, who is in her nineties, volunteers at her local church, and as well as working in the café on a regular basis, she is also involved in the Church’s food bank.
The food bank, like so many others, collects food and then distributes it to those who are in need. Having grown up during the Blitz, and the privations of rationing during World War Two (and afterwards – rationing didn’t end in the UK until July 1954) she hates waste of any kind, and always tries to live sustainably, well before such a word entered our vocabularies.
It still shocks her when she hears about waste of any kind, but she is a product of her generation, and some things are never forgotten.
There is hope though…
There are some wonderful charities that try to save food waste, and help those most in need of support.
Take The Felix Project. They collect surplus food, including vegetables, fruit, dairy produce, and meats, from food manufacturers, farms, supermarkets, and restaurants, and distribute it to those most in need.
Then there is FareShare, which was started 27 years ago in 1994, as a joint venture between the UK Homeless charity, Crisis, and Sainsburys the supermarket chain.
Originally called Crisis FareShare, the charity collects and redistributes food to over 1,000 UK charities, and has partnerships with Tesco, Asda, and the Trussell Trust (which support the UK’s network of Food Banks).
The “Feed People First” campaign that it ran in 2018 tried to ensure that it wouldn’t cost the food industry more to donate their surplus edible products to charities, than it would cost them to send it to landfill or animal feed manufacturers.
By the end of 2018, the UK Government had committed to providing funding of £15 million to enable business to divert its surplus foodstuffs to charity.
Since it was started, FareShare has provided 236.8 million meals all of which were donated to people in need via a network of frontline charities. This resulted in savings to the voluntary sector (assuming they would have had to buy the same amount of food and drink) of about £180 million!
This is a fabulous achievement, but it still highlights a vast mismatch between food supply and demand – there is such a large surplus! It also shows that our society is broken in a sad way, when people living in a supposedly civilised country are suffering food poverty, despite our very generous welfare state.
They alone are responsible for saving tonnes of waste every year, whilst reducing human misery at the same time.
As climate change strengthens its grip on our world, we will have to make some serious changes. This is not only at a global and state level. This is also at local level.
I am not a great horticulturalist, and have little interest in growing things, but I think that in future more families will have to grow some of their own foods to reduce the need for intensive farming and food transportation. Maybe misshapen vegetables and blemished fruit will be more prevalent.
In fact, Morrisons supermarkets have proven that even ugly produce is nutritious, edible, and has value.
There is an alternative though, if, like me, you are a lousy gardener.
How about not only reducing waste for landfill, but also reducing GHGs, and saving money in the long run?
This is where a small, self-contained domestic biodigester plant comes into its own.
Biodigesters are designed to capture the methane given off by decomposing organic matter.
For most people, organic matter would be food scraps including vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, dairy waste, cooking oils, pips, nuts, and bread. Some folks may operate smallholdings, and may therefore benefit further by enabling a certain amount of manure from livestock to be used.
For the truly environmentally-conscious, biogas lavatories are on the market that enable human waste to be processed as well.
Biodigesters consist of a simple tank, which may be made of hard plastic, or out of very strong PVC sheeting. The waste organic products are simply placed into the tank, and within a short period of time, helpful, friendly bacteria will start breaking down the material.
There are two main by-products of the process. One is a good source of methane gas, and the other is liquid fertiliser.
The gas generation is simple, natural, and ecologically friendly, and the methane gas output may be used to operate a cooker. Once up and running, a typical biodigester will produce enough methane for two hours of cooking per day.
The slurry that may be drained off at the end of the process is full of nutrients that are essential for plant health, and are odourless and non-toxic.
I would add a word of caution here. If you do decide to install a biogas lavatory, and use human waste, then you can’t use the by-product as fertiliser, and it must be treated as sewage and compliance with disposal regulations is essential. However, you can still tap off the methane!
So, maybe it’s time to buy less food, and to encourage our supermarkets to be less restrictive when specifying the acceptable standards for fruit, vegetables, and other produce.
Even reluctant gardeners should have a go. It’s possible to grow beans, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes in pots – even on a small balcony. Every little helps.
If you have a larger garden, maybe invest in a biodigester, and reduce your reliance on mains gas. You probably won’t generate enough gas to run your central heating, but you will be cutting down your GHG footprint.
I guess some of the answer lies in our own hands.
Header Photograph – Surplus Tomatoes piled up to rot…
* Yes, It really is spelt that way!