With millions of people facing food poverty, retailers are being criticised for choosing anaerobic digestion over redistribution. We should be thinking about the broader picture, argues Joanne Swaffield.
One third of all food produced for consumption gets wasted – that is 1.3 billion tonnes annually. This waste occurs at all stages of the supply chain. Yet more than five million people in the UK live in deep poverty and cannot afford food and other everyday essentials.
An obvious response from the retail sector is the redistribution of surplus food to people struggling to maintain a healthy diet. But according to a recent article in The Times, suppliers prefer the more financially lucrative option of sending surplus food for anaerobic digestion (the use of micro-organisms to turn organic matter into biogas to produce energy) rather than redistribute surplus food.
The Times compares the amount of food donated in Britain last year (5,900 tonnes) to other European countries such as Spain (118,000 tonnes) and Italy (72,000 tonnes). It explains that while these countries have used EU money to subsidise the cost of redistribution, Britain has instead invested in anaerobic digestion. It is therefore more expensive for British supermarkets to feed the poor than it is to send surplus food to create power.
However, recent research by the Sustainable Consumption Institute indicates that the process of surplus food management is a lot more complicated than The Times’ article might suggest. Researchers who have begun conducting interviews with policy-makers, NGOs and retailers found that redistribution is a top priority for those dealing with surplus food.
Retailers operate on the basis of a ‘food surplus hierarchy’. If food is fit for human consumption – undamaged and within its use by date – it is redistributed through charities such as Fareshare or Foodcycle. If food is not suitable for redistribution, it is disposed of via other routes, such as anaerobic digestion.
The three retailers we have so far spoken to acknowledged financial issues must be considered, but redistribution remains a priority. One said they follow the food surplus hierarchy because it is obvious that edible food should go to people in preference to its use for anaerobic digestion. Another pointed out there are environmental and moral issues to consider.
However, retailers also identify important challenges when it comes to the redistribution of surplus food. British retailers operate within very strict laws regarding health and safety. Food past its sell-by date cannot be safely donated to charity because it might make people ill. One retailer explained that this is particularly important when food is going to vulnerable people who may be homeless and without support.
There are also important logistical challenges, which can make it difficult to donate edible food. The amount of surplus available in stores and warehouses will differ on a day-to-day basis. Charities could arrive for collection to find there are no suitable products available. In contrast, some stores had edible surplus to donate, but no charitable outlet to organise redistribution.
When it comes to donating surplus food, there are things that can be improved and these are challenges that might be considered when use of the EU subsidy is assessed. Indeed, a recent House of Lords report, Counting the Cost of Food Waste, acknowledged that fiscal tools are available to support redistribution, including VAT exemptions and tax deductions. The report recommends the UK government undertake its own assessment of how it might use fiscal incentives to promote the redistribution of unavoidable surplus.
More fundamentally, however, retailers, NGOs and policy makers are clear that the over-riding priority is to reduce surplus in the first place. Redistribution is more important than creating energy, but ultimately the focus is the elimination of waste.
The production of food is a very carbon intensive process. Food that was intended for human consumption and is subsequently not eaten has a significant environmental impact. On the one hand, we might argue that this provides a clear case for redistribution. Where surplus food is eaten rather than wasted, the carbon impact can be justified.
However, if the food becomes inedible – whilst in store, in transit, or in the redistribution depot – the environmental impact of its production cannot be justified. Research suggests this is often the case and the reduction of surplus food is therefore an understandable priority.
The article in The Times suggests the EU subsidy should be invested in redistribution rather than anaerobic digestion. If these were the only two options, retailers would apparently agree with this assessment. Unavoidable (edible) surplus should go to people before anaerobic digestion plants and the practice of redistribution could be improved through further investment.
Alternatively, and perhaps more sensibly, the EU subsidy could be invested in the charities themselves. We should focus on feeding the hungry without relying on a food surplus and instead provide help for people to improve their overall situation. Redistribution is preferable to anaerobic digestion, but the real achievement would be to obviate the need for redistribution in the first place.
We should reduce food waste and address the causes of food poverty, rather than relying on one problem to fix the other.