Food waste is an unpalatable truth we all have to confront

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP

In the sunshine of the courtyard at the V&A Museum on Monday a diverse crowd of scientists, business leaders, politicians, councillors, campaigners, academics and restaurateurs gathered to enjoy a feast of leftovers cooked up by a star-studded cast of celebrity chefs.

It was the perfect prelude to the ‘Step up to the Plate’ Food Symposium organised this week by the Food Surplus and Waste Champion Ben Elliot and supported by WRAP. A real celebration of food and its ability to unite people from all walks of life, cultures, and different viewpoints in a shared passion.

It made me think about the contrast with the way we treat food the rest of the time. 

How did we get to a point where we seem to be so complacent and lacking in curiosity about the food we buy and what went into producing it? Is it a collective denial which leads to the seven million tonnes of food which ends up in household bins every year? Five million of which could have been eaten. 

In our family I’ve persuaded us to take on board the WRAP challenge to fill in a weekly ‘food waste diary’. We’re doing quite well, but I’ve been surprised how some things have slipped through the net almost subconsciously. We all waste food, even me. But most of us are in denial – in fact, when we asked, most of us say we do not waste food – despite all the stark evidence to the contrary.

It’s also encouraged us to talk about the consequences of food waste and its connection with climate change in particular. 

I believe that the growing consciousness about climate change in recent months, and the passion it has invoked, particularly in our young people, has the potential to be a watershed moment if we decide to act on it. 

And I have been delighted to see an emerging consensus about the link between the global warming and the world’s food system. That the way we currently produce, distribute and consume food is unsustainable. If we don’t fix it, we don’t have a hope of halting potentially catastrophic effects on our planet. As climate change scientist Emily Shuckburgh said in her address to the Symposium: “We must find ways of living in harmony with the world that sustains us”.

The tragedy is that those most suffering the impact of climate change are those least contributing to it. And perhaps nowhere is this inequity and injustice more demonstrable than in the distribution of food. 

It cannot continue that we recklessly squander a third of the food produced in the world whilst billions go hungry. As Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the audience, tackling food waste is a way we can all demonstrate our commitment to caring for our planet, but also our fellow human beings.

It was this backdrop which gave the Symposium an added potency and urgency. Everyone from scientists, business leaders, politicians, to a group of young schoolchildren made the same points: food waste is bad for the environment and is morally wrong.

So how do we harness the energy and collective commitment which Ben generated so brilliantly? What can we do to ‘move the dial’ in a way which is going to build on the good progress we have made so far and supercharge food waste reduction?

What is clear that we are all in this together.  We are all part of the problem, and therefore can be part of the solution. So the bold, rallying cry which Ben Elliot has launched through his pledge is a challenge to us all to contribute towards halving food waste by 2030.

At the government level, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove is to be applauded for shining the spotlight on the issue. We were particularly pleased to see a whole dedicated chapter to tackling food waste in the Resources and Waste Strategy. The message was clear: if progress is not made voluntarily then Government could compel action through legislation.

Governments need to continue to set the agenda, and the narrative. I thought it was notable that the Secretary of State in his speech challenged politicians to liberate themselves from the fear of being judged as ‘punitive, almost Calvinist’ in talking about food waste and to re-frame the national discourse to focus instead on celebrating the ‘joy’ of food.

At the event, Defra announced £6million worth of funding to help cut food waste across England. The grants will support organisations which are diverting surplus food (which would become waste) to people in need; and to support capital infrastructure to redistribute food that is currently being wasted. WRAP is delighted to have been asked to administer this grant with large and small scale Food Waste Prevention Grants now open for applications. 

Businesses need to build on the great progress made by those at the leading edge, who are showing what can be achieved in a relatively short time period. Food waste is one million tonnes lower than when we started the ground-breaking Courtauld Commitment 13 years ago. Today, Courtauld is recognised as a leading light in the global fight against food waste, most recently as the winner of the P4G global award. Its success has inspired other models around the world. This is fantastic and testament to the members’ determined and long-term focus. But more needs to be done. 

We need those businesses who haven’t already signed up to the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap and committed to Target, Measure, Act to do so now. They can follow the lead of companies like 

Nestlé UK & Ireland and Co-op who have articulated how the Roadmap and its focus on effective collaboration has helped them to drive their own food waste reduction programmes.

Those in the hospitality and food service sector can engage with our fantastic new Guardians of Grub campaign which aims to tackle the £3 billion which is thrown away by this industry annually. Aimed at everyone from Michelin star restaurants to local pubs, it provides a range of resources to encourage simple, low-cost changes to the way food is bought, prepared and served.

For the future, we need some of the innovative and avant-garde thinking which is on display at the V&A’s new FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition to become the norm. It’s fantastic and definitely worth a visit.

But this will be futile if we do not tackle and bring down household food waste. We need support from businesses, but also from governments, local authorities, community groups, everyone to join together in this important fight.

We have an exciting year ahead at WRAP exploring new and innovative ways to engage with citizens and provide them with simple, appealing and practical ways to help them in their daily lives, building up to a major awareness Food Conversation Week in November. Through Love Food Hate Waste we will build on some of the great moments we have had over the last months. Look out for and get involved with our next campaign #SpoiledRotten which will focus on encouraging us all to only buy what we are likely to eat.

We need all those innovative and brilliant minds who are also reaching out to citizens, some of whom inspired us at the Symposium, to work with us. We want not wasting food to become a valued part of our identity, of defining who we are and the kind of citizen we want to be.

That is what is happening in our household and I’m proud of my family for embracing it. I want to look back in our diary and remember 2019 as the watershed year when we all stepped up to the plate and joined a global force for change.

Our voices are getting louder; now is the time for action.