Not only are big leaps in reducing food waste now being lost, but we’ve learnt the scale of the problem has been hugely underestimated for years

When The Grocer launched its anti-food waste campaign, Waste Not Want Not, in 2016, it was the start of a long battle for transparency that would reach the very heart of government and industry.

Last week, climate change body Wrap revealed 16 food retailers, including all the major supermarkets, had managed to reduce their food waste by more than 19,000 tonnes in the past three years – the equivalent of £62m of food a year saved from waste.

However, Wrap’s report also contained alarming evidence that external economic factors are getting in the way of further progress on food waste and transparency. Perhaps most worrying of all was the revelation that for many, food waste has increased. Wrap found total food waste from suppliers (including that classed as inedible) grew by 100,000 tonnes from 2018, with almost two-thirds of suppliers seeing their amount of waste increase. Disruption from the pandemic and Brexit, making it more cost-effective to send food to a waste destination in the UK than for use in animal feed in Europe, were both blamed as factors.

It means six years on from our campaign, there are worrying signs those hard-fought gains that have propelled the industry forward are in danger of being lost.

Few could have predicted the wave of global and domestic challenges that were to come when Wrap and IGD launched their Food Waste Roadmap four years ago, in what was billed a “landmark moment” in the fight for transparency. After years of controversy over the lack of measurement and public data, the roadmap was aimed at seeing the UK emerge as a world leader in the fight against food waste. Since then, the number of food businesses committed to the roadmap has increased from just over 70 at launch to 300, with similar figures for trade bodies and other organisations. More than 30 new businesses have committed to the roadmap since September 2021 alone.

Food waste

Over  six million meals worth of edible food go to waste before even leaving the farmgate

Yet the pandemic, cost of living crisis, and war in Ukraine have piled pressure on the initiatives. Just a few months ago, IGD and Wrap made plans to redraw the roadmap to emphasise providing advice for companies on how to tackle their food waste. While they intend to stick with the goal of halving food waste by 2030 against a 2007 baseline, other key parts of the ambitions are likely to be watered down when the new version emerges next year.

The roadmap originally aimed to have 100% of the UK´s large food businesses implementing Target, Measure, Act by 2026, but that target also now looks certain to be axed, with last week’s report showing only 221 large businesses are implementing its measures out of an estimated 600.

Meanwhile, despite a government consultation earlier this year on plans for mandatory food waste reporting for all major companies to come into force by 2025, there has been huge criticism from waste campaigners over its slowness to act and fears the policy will be ditched altogether amid the economic gloom.

Even if the deadline is hit, it will be seven years since former environment secretary Michael Gove first set out plans to make reporting mandatory in the UK.

Professor Julian Parfitt, a world-leading food waste expert who for many years has warned of widespread attempts by major food companies to avoid scrutiny, fears “short-sighted” moves by the industry to rein in its ambitions, combined with a lack of government leadership, risks damaging the war on waste. Parfitt, technical director at Anthesis, one of the world’s leading sustainability consultants and a key figure in Tesco’s efforts on food waste, first told of his exasperation when he spoke to The Grocer for the launch of our campaign, after compiling a then-landmark report for Wrap.

The former special adviser to the 2014 House of Lords food waste inquiry told how he was astonished to find doors “literally slammed in his face” when he tried to collect figures from suppliers.

“I’m not naming names,” he said at the time. “But when it came to some companies, including some big names, there was a real struggle to get them to take part.”

Undeterred, Parfitt continued his crusade against food waste and was instrumental in a report by WWF and Tesco in October, called Hidden Waste, which attempted to lift the lid on what he claims is evidence of a major untackled crisis facing efforts on food waste. The shocking report paints a picture of food waste at the very start of the food chain which is simply eye-watering in scale, finding more than six million meals-worth of edible food goes to waste before it makes it out of the farmgate.

“How can we get anywhere close to tackling the problem when only Tesco has published any data relating to the farm stage and packhouse?”

Parfitt’s report suggests previous research by Wrap, which put food waste on British farms at around 1.4 million tonnes, was a gross underestimate. The reality, he says, is more than double – roughly the same weight as the Palace of Westminster.

His report says not only did Wrap rely heavily on self-reported data, but it made sweeping assumptions about what happened to surplus food, including vegetables outgraded at packhouses being assumed to have gone to animal feed rather than counted as waste.

“If you look at Wrap’s work on primary production, they’ve made major assumptions. For example, with whole categories they’ve assumed that everything goes to animal feed, and of course very often they miss food that may have gone to AD.”

Parfitt says while initiatives like the Food Waste Roadmap have succeeded “relatively well” in signing up retailers and suppliers, there are glaring omissions when it comes to waste on the farm. “How can we get anywhere close to tackling the problem when only Tesco has published any data relating to the farm stage and packhouse?”

Parfitt believes the reluctance he first encountered in 2016 still exists because suppliers are worried information may be used against them by retailers to play them off against competitors. He also suggests the industry has become “obsessed” with navel gazing around carbon emissions, without realising the key factor that food waste has to play, particularly from Scope 3 supply chain emissions. “It’s human nature to do the easy bit and make the maximum amount of noise, but we’ve now got to the point where we need some serious action to drive decarbonisation,” he says. “Food waste is a key part of that.”

food waste parliament

Government inactivity

Parfitt believes only when the government makes good on its promises for mandatory reporting will we see the level of necessary transparency. “Government inactivity is a problem. We know in the disappointments since 2016 that we need to improve the reporting. That doesn’t seem to happen effectively on a voluntary basis.

“Every year Tesco puts up the number of suppliers reporting. We’re now at 107, but why aren’t other businesses doing the same? That’s where mandatory reporting comes in. That might concentrate minds a little bit.”

He is also scathing of moves to allow companies more time to hit targets in the roadmap, because of the cost of living crisis. “I think that is a bit short-sighted. The cost of living crisis means we should redouble our efforts. The problem we have is when the goalposts keep changing.”

Lilly Da Gama, WWF’s food loss and waste programme manager lead, also believes there is a need for a new push on food waste transparency, following the gains achieved by initiatives including WNWN and the WWF’s more recent campaign.

At last year’s COP, the WWF saw Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op and M&S pledge to halve their food waste from farm to fork by 2030, as part of a series of environmental pledges.

“I remember the launch of The Grocer campaign very well, because it was when I was doing my PhD and I was just starting to get into food waste. It was one of the first places food waste was really brought into focus,” says Da Gama.

“Since then, I think we’ve seen a great amount of engagement. Food loss and waste has become a more mainstream focus. The industry is increasingly aware of how food loss and waste can impact on climate change and food security.

“Our recent report showed there has been an 18% reduction in food waste across retail and manufacturing since 2007.”

Food waste

Yet she says the lack of data on farm food waste, and lack of ambition on government targets, needs to be urgently tackled. “We really need to upscale the number of farmers reporting.

“This is one of the reasons it’s so important we see not just collaboration across the industry but also leadership from government. The government has publicly committed to reducing food waste by 50%, but they start measuring that post-farmgate, and we’ve seen limited progress even there. That’s why we are calling for a mandatory target for a 50% reduction by 2030.”

WWF met last month with food industry leaders and politicians at the House of Lords to discuss future strategies on food waste, including mandatory reporting.

“We had some great business voices in that room saying they were fully supportive of mandatory farm to fork reporting ,” says Da Gama. “The appetite is there to tackle this issue, but we need that to translate into policies.”

Parfitt uses Wrap’s and Tesco’s own much-used terminology to sum up what should happen next.

“Retailers and suppliers need to demonstrate to the whole supply chain what some of the huge benefits of disclosure can be.

“Sadly until now when you look at Target, Measure, Act, we’ve done rather too much of the target and measure, and not enough of the act.”