Copper’s Rosie Iron takes a look at the issues of waste food and food poverty – and asks how both of these problems can co-exist?

The words ‘food’ and ‘waste’ are linked far too often. And the statistics are staggering. From ‘farm to fork’ 15 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK every year, the highest proportion of which comes from households.[i] Alongside this, we hear about the rise of food banks. Five million people in Britain are either malnourished or are at risk of being so. 500,000 are reliant on food parcels.[ii] It seems nonsensical that one hand is throwing away good food, while the other is reaching out because it cannot access enough. The reasons behind food waste are numerous. Solutions to food poverty are complex. Could the hand with food be the answer to the hand that is lacking? Or is this an unsustainable solution that masks deeper problems?

Laws recently passed in France aim to connect the two. Supermarkets are banned from throwing away or destroying unsold food, and now have to give it to charities or animal food producers. Previously, some supermarkets would throw away leftover food and douse it with chemicals to prevent any foragers. This seems criminal considering the time, money, and human and environmental resources that go into making food.

This law looks to be a good step towards reducing food waste. Particularly as it includes a food waste education programme in schools and businesses. Here in the UK, charities such as Food Cycle take unsold food from major supermarkets and turn it into free meals for vulnerable people. It seems like a good partnership – reducing food waste whilst bringing food to those who need it. However, it does not tackle the root causes of why people need free meals in the first place. Some may argue that access to food is a responsibility of the state, not charitable organisations.

Numerous studies and campaigns have looked into food waste and food poverty. Waste and Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) initiative Love Food Hate Waste gives tips and ideas on how to reduce food waste. They also promote how this can save money and benefit the environment. The  All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom investigated the causes of food insecurity, giving recommendations to industry bodies, campaigners and government departments. The amount of income people have to spend on food is clearly a key factor. The cost of food has risen in the UK, but calling for cheaper food is not the answer. Farmers and food producers have huge consumer and political pressure for food to be plentiful (but not too plentiful), cheap, look “normal”, and produced in a sustainable manner. In fact, if you include the external costs involved in production such as the cost to the environment due to land degradation and air pollution, we are not paying enough for our food. And, just like transport and heating, the cost of food is tied to the price of oil.

The food system as a whole needs addressing – from farm to fork, and not forgetting what happens afterwards. The big questions are how and who should drive reform. Which incentives are most effective – sticks (tax) or carrots (subsidies)? Who has the most influence to bring about change – consumers, industry leaders or government?

Despite food being essential to our health and wellbeing, food, like other resources, was barely mentioned during the election campaign. But food is intrinsically linked with economic and political issues such as income and the UK’s relationship with the EU as well as environmental issues such as climate change and carbon emissions. Giving food that would be wasted to those that need it is clearly valuable. But this is a plaster covering the real issue: food systems need reform.

To find out more about food systems and sustainability, see Food Ethics Council and Sustainable Food Trust.


[i] WRAP

[ii] Oxfam UK