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Food: Waste

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they intend to take to prevent food waste being sent to landfill.

My Lords, to reduce food waste and prevent it going to landfill, we are helping consumers through WRAP and its “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign by working with industry via the Courtauld commitment and by aiming to launch in May a new voluntary agreement with the hospitality and food service sector. We intend to work towards our other waste review commitments, including developing the evidence base and exploring the role of incentives in reducing waste and managing it sustainably.

My noble friend lists a number of perfectly worthy measures, but is it not totally unacceptable that at the moment 16 million tonnes of food waste ends up in landfill—we must remember that it gives off methane, a very potent greenhouse gas? Should we not be looking at food waste as an energy source and encouraging caterers and commercial food interests to get their act together and ensure that none of this waste ends up in landfill?

I am grateful to my noble friend for mentioning the catering industry, because the hospitality and food service commitment, which we are pressing across government, is directed expressly at that sector. Ministers in other departments are ensuring that the Government are taking up the commitment, and Members in another place and in this House are working to ensure that Parliament’s own catering is signed up to this commitment.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, is right that 16 million tonnes of food waste is way too high and that the potential for energy production is great. The Minister gave a fine answer in respect of catering, but can I press him on the subject of energy production, particularly from anaerobic digestion? What will Government offer to incentivise people in catering and elsewhere to put their food waste into that energy production?

The noble Lord is right: anaerobic digestion is a very good process for converting food waste. I was trying to emphasise that the most important aspect of food waste is to eliminate it at source, if you can. However, where food waste arises, AD is a very effective method. Indeed, we have an AD strategy plan, which includes a £10 million loan fund to set up new capacity. WRAP offered the first loan of £800,000 to a Wiltshire-based company, Malaby Biogas, in January 2012. Other actions to promote innovation in the AD sector, particularly on a small scale, are very much part of our strategy.

My Lords, for those of us lucky enough to have gardens or allotments, the incentive to compost is obviously much greater, but what incentive does the Minister offer to households without either of those to separate out their food waste?

This is part and parcel of the CLG process of looking for weekly collections. In partnership with local authorities, we in Defra hope to encourage food waste as a separate waste stream. Certainly that has been our policy, and many of the local authorities that are putting in bids to the CLG are doing so on the basis of a separate food waste collection.

My Lords, what discussion are Her Majesty’s Government having with the devolved authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about co-operation on this matter and learning from each other’s experiences?

In many of these cases, we in Whitehall can learn considerably from the devolved authorities. I am in contact with my opposite number in Scotland. I hope that that helps the noble Lord. Indeed, the department works very closely with the devolved authorities. There is much that we can learn from each other.

My Lords, traditionally and historically, food waste went to pigs. It seems extraordinary that millions of tonnes of food eaten by humans one day cannot be fed to pigs the next. Will he look at the restrictions and regulations that prevent this natural, common-sense and historically highly efficient usage of a waste product, and see whether they can be revised?

I thank my noble friend. In fact we are doing just that; Defra has commissioned a desk study, which is being operated by FERA at the moment and is due to report this summer. All noble Lords will appreciate that people have anxieties that we need to assuage. We cannot afford the repeat of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, as I think all noble Lords understand.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that food waste is one of the three main constituents of biomass, which, along with branches of trees and imported pellets, it seems many power stations are being encouraged to burn? What incentive is there for these companies to burn this food as an alternative to anaerobic digestion? From my discussions with the industry, there seems to be no incentive at all.

The Energy from Waste programme is subsidised and incentivised. It is up to local authorities to decide the best channel for their food waste. I mentioned before that Defra sees huge advantages in the use of anaerobic digestion as an efficient method of converting food waste into energy.

My Lords, has Defra taken an interest in the impact of unnecessarily short use-by dates on a lot of food?

A great deal of work has been done on food marking. Some of those labels merely tell the shops when the product should be taken off the shelves, and it is really more for stock control. Some great strides have been made. The reduction in food waste will depend very much on consumers being aware that the use-by date still means that you can freeze the product and that it is still healthy to eat. By informing the consumers about the practical information that is available to them, we can save people throwing away food that is perfectly healthy.

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, does the Minister agree that a great many people now growing up do not understand either how to buy or to prepare food, that often food is wasted because people are driven to believe the sell-by dates that are put on to packaged food, and that they have no mechanisms for understanding how to use their own common sense in discerning whether food is fit for consumption? Will he ask his colleagues in the Department for Education to look into educating pupils better about that matter?

I am sure that we could all learn good household skills. It is never too late to learn about some of these very basic matters. I agree with the noble Baroness that a lot of food waste is caused by careless shopping and food stocking. This applies not just within the household but within the commercial and catering trades. That is why we are trying to tackle this problem on all fronts.