Food swing

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

Food waste was the hot environmental topic of the year in 2015, outshone only by the climate deal struck in Paris. This year, we can expect more of the same. David Burrows explores the situation in the UK and Europe

To kick things off food-waste-wise in 2016 there is the second reading of the Food Waste Bill in Parliament. Within the proposed legislation is a target for supermarkets, manufacturers and distributors to cut waste by at least 30% by 2025. The bill could actually become official Labour policy should Kerry McCarthy, the MP who originally proposed it, continue to take it forward – because she has since been promoted to shadow environment secretary.

New policy is definitely on the way from Holyrood, in Scotland, where the SNP plans to announce a food waste target. Believed to be the first of its kind in the EU, it will place the country “at the forefront of tackling global food waste”, said environment secretary Richard Lochhead recently.

Indeed, the European Commission has shied away from such a target in its recently unveiled Circular Economy Package. Member states will get a new common methodology to measure food waste consistently, which could theoretically lead to a reduction target in the future.

The legislative proposals also include a requirement for member states to ensure separate collections of bio-waste (including food waste) where technically, environmentally and economically practicable and appropriate (TEEF).

However, food waste is certainly an area in which the new package lacked the ambition that was originally promised. That the new plans eliminated a previously agreed food waste reduction target was particularly disappointing.

“Proposals on food waste and separate collection appear to be weaker than many of us had hoped for and the introduction of TEEF as a successor to TEEP may not prove to be the Commission’s finest moment,” says Ray Georgeson from the Resource Association.

Courtauld 2025

But forget regulation. One of the most pivotal announcements this year could come in March when WRAP announces Courtauld 2025.

Thus far, WRAP has revealed only that: “Central to the proposed agreement is the ambition to help consumers to reduce avoidable food waste and to aid businesses to share efficiency savings along supply chains, waste less and get more value from unavoidable waste, and thereby increase business resilience.”

The deal will also “differ significantly” from previous iterations of Courtauld “by taking a whole system view to address other areas of resource efficiency for the first time”. This means the Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement (HaFSA) and the Courtauld Commitment will be replaced by a super-agreement spanning food retail, manufacturing, food service and hospitality.

“By working collectively we will provide lower-impact products, provide them more efficiently, help people get more value from the food and drink they buy, and make best use of remaining waste and surplus food,” suggests the latest update on WRAP’s website.

This could bring opportunities through sharing best practice. As such, those planning Courtauld 2025 might want to bend the ears of those involved in the US Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA).

The alliance, set up in 2011, has brought together the National Restaurant Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association to reduce food waste, increase redistribution and recycle unavoidable food waste.

Remedies, solutions and improvements

Writing in September on the back of the government’s announcement to set a nationwide 50% food waste reduction goal by 2030, FMI president and CEO Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO, explained: “Clearly each industry group – food producers, food retailers and restaurants – has its own set of unique food waste challenges and each must clarify its own set of remedies, solutions and improvements. But it proves very fruitful for us to work together in seeking to eliminate our weaknesses and enhance our strengths.”

Indeed, voluntary collaborations and agreements like this live or die by the willingness of businesses to both sign up and open up.

Will this willingness be evident in the UK?

The latest results from HaFSA shows signatories achieved a reduction in CO2e emissions of 3.6% in 2014 relative to 2012 (the baseline year), putting them well on the way to achieving the waste prevention target of 5% by the end of 2015. The estimated cost saving from reducing food waste alone was £3.6 million, while the amount of surplus food redistributed has shot up by 47% to 528 tonnes, albeit from a very small base.

“Given this performance, I’m sure the final results will set a solid foundation for The Courtauld Commitment 2025,” says WRAP director of sustainable food systems, Richard Swannell.

A decade’s worth of Courtauld Commitments has also shown that the major grocers and food manufacturers can work together to reduce waste – and produce results. Phase 3 interim data, published in October, showed how the 50 or so manufacturers, retailers and brands signed up have “significantly reduced” against the baseline 2012 figure. Though not part of the targets, redistribution of surplus food was also estimated to have increased by 20,000 tonnes.

“What makes Courtauld so effective is the sector-wide approach to tackling the most impactful areas,” Swannell adds. “It’s important we continue to strive in the final year of Courtauld Phase 3 and push the boundaries in the preparation for Courtauld 2025.”

So, what might the new targets be? Between 2007 and 2012, food waste created after the farm gate was cut by 12%, or 1.6 million tonnes. Progress since then has slowed, however.

“All of us have to up our game,” said WRAP CEO Liz Goodwin in 2014 as she admitted to being both “disappointed” and “frustrated” that things hadn’t quite kicked in.

By the end of 2015, the ambition was to have reduced food waste by two million tonnes compared to 2007 (on an annual basis). Cumulatively this would mean that 12 million tonnes of waste had been prevented between 2007 and 2015. What’s possible between now and 2025 – the timeline for Courtauld – is hard to say.

Achieveable targets

In its September 2014 report, Historical changes and how amounts might be influenced in the future, WRAP assessed the chances of reaching the ‘30% by 2025’ food waste reduction target, originally part of the Commission’s Circular Economy Package.

The baseline would have been 2017. Such a target is “not achievable under any credible scenario in the UK”, WRAP concluded, given that the “low-hanging fruit” has already been plucked.

However, a cut of 30% compared to 2007 could be achieved, “but would be extremely challenging”. It would also require “policies to have an impact twice as large as the annual impact of the UK’s Courtauld Commitment had between 2009 and 2012, sustained until 2025”.

No pressure, then.

Setting sustainability targets is rarely easy, but Swannell and his team have a decent record of using ones that signatories can meet: HaFSA is on track and things look in good shape for the final stage of Courtauld.

But does this mean the bar has been set too low? Supporters argue that the targets have to be realistic in order for businesses to sign up. Critics counter that, regardless, the agreements don’t cover enough of the industry.

“It’s fair to say that 90% of the grocery retail market [are signed up to Courtauld] as most major retailers are indeed signatories as far as I can tell. It is their suppliers who are small in number,” says Mark Varney, director of food at redistribution charity Fareshare. Courtauld Phase 3 has 41 food and beverage manufacturers signed up, of which 19 are in the alcoholic or soft beverage sectors, he explains; but there are also 2,000 or more small and medium-sized businesses in the food sector.

Holding the fort

The food service sector, meanwhile, is largely composed of smaller players, which has seen HaFSA struggle to bring signatories on board, in spite of the potential savings. Let’s not forget too that the Commission has ditched the 30% food waste reduction target in its new Circular Economy Package, which would have incentivised new government policy.

As it is, Courtauld 2025 will be left to hold the fort in the fight against food waste. Eyes will not only be on the targets set, but on how many companies sign up and the impact they can have. Voluntary approaches have made some positive steps, it’s true, but even food companies are beginning to wonder whether legislation might be a better bet in a bid to move beyond the low-hanging fruit.

“Where there is not a strong business case, legislate us, so that we are forced to perform, because voluntary standards can only get us so far,” said one executive during a report on food security for WWF and the Food Ethics Council.

This material is protected by MA Business Ltd copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.