Food waste is huge – about one third of everything we produce gets thrown away at some point along the food chain. In developing countries, food waste is low in homes but high in supply chains, and in developed countries it’s the other way round.
Some food waste is unavoidable through – for instance – a failed harvest. Other food waste is avoidable (e.g. buying too much of something). Some waste is infrastructural (e.g. damaged roads making it hard to get to market) and some is behavioural. UK farms throw away edible food because it doesn’t meet the strict aesthetic standards imposed by supermarkets. And individuals chuck almost 50% of their food in the bin for one reason or another.
Growing or buying more food than we need and throwing it away is wrong on several levels. There are huge environmental impacts from wasted food, especially if it ends up in landfill where it releases greenhouse gases.
It’s an ethical issue too. It’s unjust that so much food is thrown away while so many people can’t afford to eat. And equally unjust to squander it when every piece of food carries within it the embedded energy, carbon, water, labour and land-use that have gone into making it.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort in the UK to tackle food waste, with some success. However, the causes of household food waste are multiple and complex. Changing individual behaviours alone won’t work – although it will help. Instead, a holistic approach is needed, with government encouragement and support for businesses and individuals to adopt different tactics to reduce waste. This can range from the offers that supermarkets promote in the aisles to the way that manufacturers package products. Even a resealable package can increase the shelf life of food. Government must simplify use-by and best-before dates. Many people assume that they’re the same, but the latter is merely advisory.
There are lots of ways we can effectively tackle food waste, but there’s one very big way that we shouldn’t, which is by conflating the problem with food poverty. Sure, there’s an important role for redistributing surplus food to people in need in the short-term. But ultimately, we must tackle the fundamental causes of food waste and the root causes of poverty separately, not use one problem to try and fix another.
Note: key questions to ask and/ or top tips
Food can be frozen before its use-by date to make it last longer.
Use-by dates indicate when a product may no longer be safe to eat, and you shouldn’t eat, cook, or freeze it after the date displayed, even if it looks or smells fine.
Best-before dates are an indication of quality rather than safety. Food is safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best – its flavour and texture might not be as good.