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Food Waste

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021


Asked by

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in so doing declare an interest: I have been involved in the food industry all of my walking life.

My Lords, reducing food waste helps mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity, improve other environmental outcomes and use our resources more efficiently. This Government are committed to meeting the UN’s sustainable development goal 12.3 target to halve global food waste by 2030. Actions that we have taken include appointing a food waste champion, supporting householders to waste less with campaigns such as the Food Waste Action Week, grant-funding the redistribution sector and working with industry on sustainable supply chains.

I thank the noble Lord for that response. I am sure one of the main problems is that the sell-by dates on products are far too cautious. I remember once eating a biscuit that was 20 years old. It was perfectly edible.

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with that point. I do not think that I have eaten a biscuit quite that old, but I would not be afraid of doing so. The UK is objectively an international leader in tackling food waste. We are fully committed to the UN sustainable development goal target, which, as I said, is to halve global food waste at consumer and retail levels by 2030. We will use all available tools and I take the noble Lord’s comments on board.

I am pleased to hear the Minister endorse the efforts being made globally and internationally by the Government, but can I take him back to World War II, when there was a huge effort to take the campaign into every household? It was done by advertising, by broadcasting and by recruiting restaurants, cafés and commentators to reach individuals. Please can the Government address their policy in that direction?

My Lords, that is very much the direction in which we are focusing our efforts. For example, Food Waste Action Week in March is the first of what we hope will be an annual event focused on citizen food waste and is all about increasing awareness. We are also urging businesses to help consumers directly. The way food products are sold, packaged, labelled, priced et cetera can make a big difference to waste levels at home. We are funding both of WRAP’s campaigns: Love Food Hate Waste and Wasting Food: It’s Out of Date. These schemes are about helping and motivating people to cut waste. There is masses of evidence to suggest that that is working.

My Lords, with queues at food banks and children suffering from food poverty, food waste is an outrage. In some cases, supermarkets are refusing to take produce grown under contract, resulting in it being ploughed back into the ground. These crops could be used to make meals to help feed the homeless. What is the Minister doing to ensure that no nutritious food is destroyed in this way?

My Lords, there are so many benefits to cutting food waste and the noble Baroness has mentioned just one. The total amount of surplus food redistributed in the UK in 2018 alone—as a consequence, partly, of UK Government efforts—was 56,000 tonnes. That is worth £166 million and is food that would have been thrown away but was not. UK food redistribution almost doubled between 2015 and 2018 for charitable and commercial sectors. Surplus food redistributed via charities made up almost 60% of that total, up from 40% in 2015. We are investing in numerous organisations that are on the front line of ensuring that food, instead of being wasted, is redistributed to those people who need it most.

My Lords, the reduction in food wasted by households during the pandemic, seemingly as a result of careful shopping, budgeting and home cooking, is to be warmly welcomed. Can my noble friend say what action is to be taken to ensure that similar reductions happen in the hospitality sector as it begins to open up?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. We are supporting WRAP, which is our delivery partner, to help the hospitality sector to waste less food. WRAP has developed a new programme, called Guardians of Grub, to help the sector put food waste reduction, with all the associated cost savings, at the heart of its operations. As I mentioned, we are also supporting the redistribution sector to get more surplus food to those in need. In 2018, the hospitality industry provided more than 1,000 tonnes of surplus food—around 2% of its total—and since then we have invested significantly in redistribution, so we expect those positive trends to continue.

My Lords, given that the global food system accounts for as much as 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, does the Minister agree that food, farming, dietary change and tackling food waste should form part of the Government’s commitments for COP 26? Does he also consider that it would be appropriate for England to join Scotland in signing the Glasgow food and climate declaration?

My Lords, it is remarkable that over the last 40 years food production has trebled, but that has come at a huge cost, in soil erosion, in the unsustainable use and pollution of water and in deforestation. Agriculture is responsible for about 80% of the world’s deforestation and deforestation is now the second biggest source of emissions. Meanwhile, efforts to produce cheaper meat have led to industrial-scale use of antibiotics, which in turn exacerbates issues around antimicrobial resistance. This absolutely is a central issue and much of the work that we are doing in the run-up to COP 26 in November is centred around the need to shift and change fundamentally the way in which we use land.

Food waste disposed of in plastic packaging either goes to landfill or contaminates organic waste streams. Does the Minister agree that this could be partially solved by incentivising food producers and retailers to use compostable packaging, by which I mean the type that degrades naturally, rather than as a result of chemical processes? What action are the Government taking to support that?

The Government have a keen interest in the issue of biodegradable and compostable packaging. The sad truth is that much of the packaging that is advertised as such really is not. We are looking at that in great detail, with a view potentially to creating a standard to avoid any confusion. I hope that we will resolve those issues soon and will be able to establish a clear policy that is both understandable and effective.

Does the Minister agree that supermarket promotions such as “three for two” and “buy one, get one free” promote overprovisioning and result in waste? What action is being taken to make supermarkets address the causes of food waste?

Much of the focus of the work that the Government are doing is on trying to get the food sector, at all levels, to reduce the amount of food waste generated. Clearly, that involves supermarkets packaging, advertising and presenting their products in a way that helps consumers to make the right choices, with a view to reducing their environmental footprint and food waste.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, which deals with the sustainable management of natural resources, the Welsh Government might be empowered to introduce a food waste charge on all food that is not sold or disposed of for human or animal consumption by its end date? Will he encourage the Welsh Government to act in that regard and will he consider whether such steps might be equally applicable in England?

On food waste, with our counterparts in the DAs, we learn from each other. Much of our work with WRAP, including citizen campaigns, is supported by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the resources and waste strategy, we have committed to seek powers in our Environment Bill to impose responsibilities on producers to reduce their waste, should progress from all the current measures be insufficient to get us towards that sustainable development goal. We continue to look closely at the issue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that apps and charities are more effective in the redistribution of surplus food than any government policy, however well intentioned, can be? May I take him a little bit upstream and talk about the production phase? For years, British agriculture was locked into a system where there was necessary overproduction and where intensive farming, the use of chemical fertilisers and the felling of hedgerows were encouraged by an output-based system. Will my noble friend confirm that we will now have a farming policy in this country tailored to suit the needs of the countryside, which is the sublime inheritance of all of us in these islands?

I agree with the noble Lord about the value, the benefit and the effectiveness of the private sector in dealing with these issues, particularly through new technology and apps. I can also absolutely confirm that one of the biggest opportunities that we have in relation to farming, land use, conservation and the environment is the ability now, post Brexit, to ditch the old common agricultural policy and replace it with a new system that, instead of incentivising land use destruction, which CAP undoubtedly did throughout the continent, is moving to make all payments conditional on delivery of a public good. Of course, one public good, among many, is environmental stewardship.