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Mandatory food waste reporting: A simple policy that could have major impact

More comprehensive food waste data could pave the way partnerships between large firms and food redistribution charities, writes Andrew Selous MP.

Andrew Selous MP

We rightly have targets in place to cut food and residual waste, but what isn't measured cannot be reduced. It is therefore welcome news that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is reconsidering whether to mandate food waste reporting for large businesses. This is a relatively light touch intervention, but the reductions in food waste it could deliver are heavy weight.

At the moment, we simply do not know the full scale of the food waste problem in the UK. We certainly have statistics to guide us, such as that, in the UK, we throw away 6.6 million tonnes of household food waste a year, three quarters of which is edible. But data on the whole is rather patchy.

At the household level, food waste officially has a route out of our general waste bins. Thanks to the government's simpler recycling reforms announced last month, households across the country will soon have their food waste collected from a dedicated bin every single week. The process of collection has been shown to embarrass individuals into reducing their own food waste, meaning not only will waste now be directed to a better method of disposal, namely composting or anaerobic digestion instead of incineration and landfill, but it should also be reduced somewhat at the household level too.

This announcement was accompanied by additional funding for the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to create campaigns to inform consumers about food waste and to get businesses involved in voluntary food waste reduction schemes. However, the government consultation revealed that voluntary reporting of food waste has stalled and is expected to plateau. Indeed, this realisation was an underlying motivation to run the consultation on whether or not to mandate this reporting in the first place. The insights we are able to glean from the companies voluntarily collecting and publishing food waste data is limited as, intuitively, they are more likely to be the businesses proactively seeking to reduce their food waste. In short, the data is likely skewed towards the do-gooders.

Mandating this reporting for large food businesses provides us with facts about the food waste among large food businesses as a whole. And once this data is publicly available, we can let the market sort out the rest.

One obvious benefit to mandatory reporting is the pressure that data collection applies to businesses to cut out unavoidable food waste. But, recognising that some food waste is to some degree inevitable, this data will also facilitate partnerships between large food businesses and redistribution charities such as Fareshare.

As a nation of bargain hunters who are becoming more environmentally conscious and tech savvy, the demand for services like Too Good To Go is growing massively. Across my own constituency of South West Bedfordshire we have 35 stores registered on the app that have saved 39,812 meals and 99,530 kilograms of CO2 equivalent between them. This data will help to ensure the supply of surplus food is reaching the demand.

As policy solutions go, mandating food waste reporting is an incredibly simple one. For such a small intervention, the ripple effects for food waste reduction could be huge. It is also a cost-efficient policy for the taxpayer, with the cost to the Treasury predicted to be neutral.

But, that is not to say that more does not need to be done. Currently 2.9 million tonnes of good-to-eat food is going to waste on UK farms, for example. As with most market failures, the issue can be traced back to a lack of incentives.

Wonky fruits and vegetables produced by farmers are penalised by the exacting beauty standards set by retailers. If a farmer's carrots do not conform, they cannot leave the farm in the supermarket lorry. Once this edible food has been deemed too ugly, farmers have a lack of incentives to redistribute this surplus. As it stands, this edible food is left to rot, sent to landfill, or an anaerobic digestion (AD) facility. As incomes continue to be squeezed, ensuring that edible food goes to people, not AD plants, is not an outlandish policy objective.

Currently, the government's subsidy regime gives out £750m each year to the AD industry. But 64,500 tonnes of the food processed by AD plants is perfectly good surplus, edible food. Where surplus, edible food is concerned, our subsidy regime is perversely incentivising AD over redistribution. Future subsidies should seek to remedy this, without complicating the problem even further.

With a target to reduce food waste by 50 per cent by 2030 and residual waste by 2042 in place, reducing food waste across the economy is essential. Weekly collections at the household level is a welcome first step that I hope will now be followed with a decision to mandate food waste reporting for large food businesses.

First published by BusinessGreen. The Andrew Selous MP (South West Bedfordshire) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.

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