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The Truth Behind Waste in Supermarket Supply Chains

I’m standing outside Sainsbury’s HQ, next to two friends dressed as a carrot and strawberry, with a refuse skip full of food waste, mounted on the back of a truck. We’re being told by the police and a security guard that we can’t enter the building to hand in a petition – signed by over 225,000 people – calling on Sainsbury’s and the other major supermarkets to tackle their food waste.

chris-king-photography_stop-the-rot-84

Shockingly, an estimated third of the food grown worldwide is wasted. If food waste was a country, it would have the third largest emissions of carbon after the US and China. The water used to grow food that is wasted every year, could cover the household water needs of 9 billion people – the number expected on the planet by 2050. Some 28% of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow food that ends up as waste – about the same area as China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia combined. According to the FAO, the food wasted globally would be enough to end world hunger many times over.

How can we utilise this abundance of food and resources, which is currently being wasted? A common narrative is that food waste in rich countries is mainly caused by consumers in the home. But there is a whole chunk missing from this picture.

About half of the food wasted in the UK is wasted in the supply chain, before it even gets to the shopping basket – about 7 million tonnes of it. That’s more than enough to end UK food poverty. Many businesses waste more in a day than a consumer wastes in a year. So it’s clear that attempts by supermarkets to focus the debate on consumers and deflect attention from their supply chains is wrong. We need to tackle waste on the UK’s farms and factories as a priority.

This is Rubbish launched the Stop the Rot campaign in order to shed light on the food waste that’s often hidden from consumers’ view, and increase public pressure for change.

While food waste on farms is estimated at a colossal 3 million tonnes, the actual figure is unknown. We started our journey by visiting farms who were at the sharp end of supermarket practices and policies that lead them to waste food they spend months patiently cultivating.

This Is Rubbish - food waste mountain

One farmer we visited wasted 300,000 perfectly edible cabbages. The reason for this farm waste is varied. Sometimes produce is rejected because it’s the wrong shape or size and doesn’t adhere to rigorous cosmetic standards set by supermarkets. It’s fairly common practice for supermarkets to cancel orders at the last minute, yet farmers overproduce for fear of being delisted if they can’t fulfil a single order. Both lead to massive waste and many farmers have been driven out of business by these practices. They need to stop.

Consumers buy 75% of the UK’s food through the big four supermarkets: Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. These companies have a huge amount of power over their suppliers’ food waste.

In recent years, there’s been some progress, with expanded redistribution of food waste to charity, and a relaxation of cosmetic standards for some product ranges, as well as forays into whole crop purchasing. But these changes have had only a marginal effect because the problem is so large. For instance, only 2% of the UK’s edible food waste is currently redistributed. What’s called for are solid reduction targets rather than piecemeal initiatives which are good for PR but don’t tackle the core problem.

Courtauld is a voluntary agreement to cut food waste in the UK over the next 10 years. The industry is on the cusp of agreeing its next phase. We need pressure on the food industry to step up to ambitious targets of at least a 30% reduction in supply chain food waste. However, if voluntary measures fail to achieve their planned objectives, then regulation is clearly needed.

Stop the Rot is calling for supermarkets to publish data on their whole supply chain waste, including farms. Furthermore, we are calling on them to commit to the 30% reduction in supply chain waste over the next ten years.

We’ve built a huge movement of supporters along the way, amongst others they include Friends of the Earth, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rosie Boycott, and Caroline Lucas MP, not to mention our 225,000 petition signees.

Skip mainIn addition to our petition, we’ve projected our campaign calls onto supermarket buildings, and have been talking to supermarkets, MPs, and civil society groups to tackle supply chain food waste. We have already won meetings with Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s (despite the frosty reception on our initial visit), and progress is being made. But the supermarkets still haven’t committed to making the changes we have asked for. We need to increase the pressure on them and show that their customers, and the wider public, want action.

To get behind the Stop the Rot campaign, please sign our petition.

Stop the Rot are supporters of Shadow DEFRA Minister Kerry McCarthy’s Food Waste Bill, which is due for its second reading on 29th January. If successful, it will legally obligate businesses to reduce their food waste by 30% by 2025.

Use up your leftovers and deploy your compost caddy, yes. But next time you do so, remember the 300,000 cabbages one farmer had to waste, and see that we need to reduce waste through the entirety of the food chain. We need political change, so join our movement to Stop the Rot!

Photographs: Chris King

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