THE BLOG

It's Time We Lifted the Lid on the Supermarket Supply Chain

18/11/2015 09:54 GMT | Updated 17/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Many businesses waste more food in a day than a consumer wastes in a year. We need to stop the rot.

Roughly a third of the food grown worldwide is wasted. The scale of that waste is staggering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food wasted globally would be enough to end world hunger multiple times over. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter after the US and China.

Stopping climate change, or world hunger, can seem a daunting business. What can I, as one person, do to change this? The mismatch between such small acts as composting and donations to the local food bank, and the enormity of the task, can seem jarring, and lead to disempowerment. But it's our power as citizens, pressuring businesses to change, which is where our real power lies.

Supermarkets have been trying to shift the blame for food waste onto the consumer. If you count "the consumer", "manufacturing", "farmers" as if they are three separate people in a room, the consumer would indeed waste the most. But there are millions of separate consumers, all wasting individually comparatively small amounts, who each require behaviour change. Whereas many businesses waste more in a day than a consumer wastes in a year.

All together, the food wasted in the supply chain, before it even gets to the shopping basket, is about 7 million tonnes - about half of the food wasted in the UK. That's enough to end UK food poverty multiple times over. And someone pays for that food that is wasted - be it you, the person who can't afford to eat, or the supermarket's suppliers.

That's why I'm helping launch Stop the Rot, a campaign to tackle the mountains of food waste in supermarkets' supply chains. Farms are often victims of this waste. Farmers are under a huge amount of pressure in the UK, and many are going out of business. But supermarket policies often push the risks of food waste onto their suppliers. Produce of certain sizes, shapes and colour are often rejected. Farmers often overproduce to ensure they never miss an order. And unfair trading practices like order cancellations are rife among the supermarkets, which also lead to waste.

Simple measures like relaxing cosmetic standards, whole crop purchasing and guaranteeing orders can help reduce this waste. Yet nobody even knows how much food is wasted on farms in the UK, even though it is estimated to be a colossal 3 million tonnes. Hidden from view, the waste piles up, and the farmers suffer in silence.

This year Labour's new Shadow DEFRA Minister, Kerry McCarthy, proposed a Food Waste Bill, which if successful will legally obligate businesses to reduce their food waste by 30% by 2025. Businesses argue that they don't need this regulation, because they are already motivated enough to reduce food waste themselves, partly through a voluntary agreement called the Courtauld Commitment.

The industry are on the cusp of agreeing the next phase of Courtauld, which covers the whole next 10 years of food waste reduction in the UK. But it currently looks as if to attract signatories to a voluntary target, the targets will be watered down to be acceptable to everyone. A maximum reduction of 12% for retail and manufacturing has even been mentioned - hardly ambitious over 10 years. And it is currently unclear whether farm waste will be included in the targets at all, since there is not enough good quality data on this. As a result, we are likely to get another unambitious, consumer-focussed agreement.

We need to pressure the food industry to step up to ambitious targets, and if they don't, then regulation is clearly needed. 75% of the UK's food is bought through Tescos, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsburys - meaning that they have a huge degree of power over their suppliers' food waste. With enough pressure, we can push them to change.

Food waste has shot up the public agenda in the last few years, now ranking as the second highest consumer concern when buying food. Yet supermarkets keep the food waste in their own supply chains hidden from view, not publicly accountable.

I've launched a petition on Change.org to call on supermarkets to tackle food waste in their supply chains. The Stop the Rot campaign is calling for supermarkets to publish data on their whole supply chain's waste, including farms. And we're calling on them to commit to reducing their supply chain waste by 30% over the next ten years.

In just two weeks, our petition has amassed over 189,000 signatures and counting. Stop the Rot already has support from Friends of the Earth, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Kerry McCarthy MP and Thomasina Miers, amongst others.

It's people power that will create the real change. With public pressure, we can create the change we need to truly end food waste.