Our highly globalised, just in time food supply chain has come under considerable scrutiny since the coronavirus pandemic pushed the system to its limits. The shock of seeing empty shelves in a modern, wealthy, westernised country has led many to question the resilience of the UK’s food system. We can expect this topic to be debated long after the immediate crisis is over, when we begin to (hopefully) build back better.
Even before coronavirus hit, though, the global food system faced some big questions, notably about its ability to feed a growing population. The world’s population is expected to jump by more than 20 per cent from 7.8 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050, and global institutions have long argued that we’ll have to drastically ramp up food production to satisfy the needs of so many more people. Options touted as potential solutions include shifting to more plant based diets, creating higher yield crops, improving soil and water management and ‘double cropping’ to boost agricultural productivity. All of these things are important ways to improve resilience.
There is already enough food to go around
But, in fact, the world’s farms already produce enough food to feed ten billion people. One thing that is far too often left out of the equation is the role that ending food loss and waste can play in keeping the world fed. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation suggests a third of food grown never gets eaten. This is a huge failure of the food system. If this food found its way onto forks instead, the challenge of feeding a growing population would be much less daunting.
Here in the UK, we have long had a problem with food waste and it is only in the past couple of years that there has been a slight drop in the figures. UK households still waste a lot of food, on average £700 worth a year. This is 4.5 million tonnes of avoidable waste, or the equivalent of ten billion meals. That’s 150 potential meals wasted for every person in the UK, every year, enough to feed around nine million more people.
These numbers are staggering and sobering. And they are only the figures for what householders are throwing away. Commercial and industrial businesses in the food sector are estimated to contribute an additional 2.9 million tonnes; and there will be more waste still generated on farms. Unfortunately, there are no reliable figures for the waste created through supply chains and before it leaves farms, despite more than 15 years of voluntary commitments from the sector. And a consultation on mandatory food waste reporting, promised in the resources and waste strategy for mid-2019, has still not been launched.
COVID-19 means it will get worse
If you think that’s bad, the coronavirus pandemic is expected – at least in the short term – to make all of these figures worse. In the initial days of the lockdown, panic buying was rife. And it wasn’t just loo roll and the tinned foods, traditionally stockpiled in bunkers, that flew off the shelves. For a few weeks it was also difficult to come across fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and bread, all perishables destined to go off quickly. And indeed, anaerobic digestion operators – the facilities that treat the nation’s food waste – warned that they faced an ‘avalanche’ of food waste that they might not be able to handle. The likes of the Daily Mail have already documented their fury at the “loaves of bread, bunches of bananas and unopened packs of chicken products” that have been tossed aside.
And that’s just from homes. The sudden closure of the nation’s restaurants and cafés left considerable stock with nowhere to go, and some of it, inevitably, has been wasted. Concerns are also growing about the fate of the nation’s harvest, with warnings that at least some of this may be left to rot in the fields over the coming months. Even before coronavirus, there were concerns that Brexit would lead to a scarcity of workers from Eastern Europe. In recent days, farmers have called for a “land army” to pick this year’s harvest, with students and laid off bar and restaurant workers willing to try. Doubts remain, though, about whether they will have the aptitude to match the highly trained Eastern European workers, or indeed the appetite to perform such back breaking work in the long run.
We could be changing our ways
But, in the long term, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. As in many areas of society, the pandemic could prove to be a catalyst that highlights what we value and leads to positive change, shifting our relationship with food for the better.
If my inability to find eggs in first few weeks of lockdown was anything to go by, many people have been passing their time indoors by doing more home baking. In fact, the additional time some of us have on our hands, and the need to distract children with hands-on activities, both provide opportunities to improve our relationship with food. That will hopefully mean more people will listen to the food waste busting lessons from the likes of WRAP’s Love food, hate waste.
The bare shelves in major supermarkets have also seen increasing numbers of people turning to local suppliers, and organic fruit and veg delivery companies are struggling to cope with increased demand. If these become long term habits and, crucially, are coupled with better meal planning and less waste, it will undoubtedly be a good thing.
Beyond households, the government has made food redistribution a priority during the pandemic, offering £3 million to charities that supply excess food to people in need. This has long been viewed as an important way to eliminate waste from the food sector and, if relationships are established during the pandemic that carry on after it’s over, it could also have a positive impact. Indeed, it could help to end the “the economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste” and provide us all with a much needed sense of security about where our food will come from in the long run.