Government and industry urged to pick up pace to end food waste epidemic
4 October 2022
While continental Europe has faced its worst drought in 500 years, the UK has not escaped unharmed. We’ve seen only 62% of usual summer rainfall this year1, with reservoirs at their lowest since records began2. Collectively, we’ve endured one of the hottest summers ever and British agriculture has had to live with the realities of water restriction, crop failures and significantly reduced yields.
Against this backdrop, the need to understand and act on the underlying drivers of climate change has never been more pressing. And yet, we hear remarkably little about the massive and underrepresented issue of food waste or the relationship between food waste and water.
More than 2.5 billion3 tonnes of food are thrown away globally each year. Every piece of food has its own water footprint and research shows the amount of water wasted from uneaten food is three times the volume of Lake Geneva4. In an increasingly water scarce world, that’s shocking.
Food waste is not only an environmental crisis in the making – accounting for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also an urgent humanitarian concern. In the UK, food poverty is reaching unprecedented levels as the cost-of-living crisis continues, with 7 million5 people now struggling to afford to eat. This status quo is difficult to comprehend.
The stark reality is that if we continue to waste good food at current levels, it will fatally undermine our ability to tackle the climate emergency and provide quality food at affordable prices for all.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There remains cause for optimism. Notably, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to halve per capita food waste by 2030 has been a galvanising force – certainly in the supermarket industry.
But if we are serious about tackling food waste it will require increased political focus and a recommitment from the food industry to report progress publicly and continue to make meaningful progress.
Across the Tesco group, we have reduced overall food waste by 45% since 2016/17. Just 0.35% of food handled last year ended up as waste. Our work includes redistributing surplus food to charities, community groups and colleagues, a programme that has become more valuable as people look to reduce costs, or converting non-edible produce into pet, animal feed or energy. We provide two million meals a month on average to charities and community groups via Community Food Connection in the UK in conjunction with FareShare and FoodCloud. With OLIO, a community food sharing app, we have also redistributed more than 18 million meals since 2019. Our work also sees us support suppliers to find new ways to make more of their crops, like finding a home for their 'wonky' fruit and veg in our Perfectly Imperfect range and selling bumper crops at great value.
But, to acknowledge our progress is also to highlight that more can and must be done. It’s why we are taking two critical next steps in our fight against food waste. Steps we encourage the entire sector to follow.
As a founding member of Champion 12.3, we signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development 2030 Goal. We’re now announcing an acceleration of our commitment to achieve this by 2025. For the first time, we will also align executive pay performance targets to key sustainability measures, including reducing food waste. We are one of the first, and hopefully not the last, UK food retailer to do this.
While I’m proud of our progress and recognise the vital importance targets play in setting the benchmark and focusing minds, it’s the practical frontline action that really changes things. Supermarkets can’t solve this issue alone. Our supplier partners are critical to this mission, and we need to take them with us on this journey. 107 of our largest global suppliers now report their food loss annually using the Target, Measure, Act framework – 28 more than last year. Collectively we’ve reduced food waste loss and waste by 122,000 tonnes.
Success depends on doing more than just asserting the environmental need. Of course, we need suppliers to recognise, as many do, that reducing food waste is an essential climate imperative. But we also need to prove its many business benefits including helping to stabilise food prices, improve efficiency, save money and continue to innovate against a backdrop of rising inflationary pressures.
Many of our suppliers have willingly grasped the nettle. One such supplier is BROP, a Central European produce supplier, we’ve supported to maximise its fresh produce. This includes selling their ‘wonky’ vegetables to customers at lower prices through our ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ range and creating a new line of ‘baby potatoes’ to help use up smaller potatoes that are often left in the fields after harvest. Not only does this mean we can provide our customers with even more value at a time when budgets are squeezed, it also helps to increase customer awareness of the importance of tackling food waste.
Our work to reduce food waste isn’t just focused on our operations. With approximately 70% of all food waste being created within households, we think it is also important to help our customers tackle the problem too. This year we launched a new campaign to encourage customers to cut food waste at home, helping to save money by implementing a simple, weekly food hack. The Tesco ‘Use Up Day’ campaign focuses on providing customers with the tips and inspiration, to use up the food they already have at home to create a tasty meal. This weekly intervention can help to save an average family, approximately £260 a year.
Yet, however hard Tesco works with suppliers, and its customers, truly turning the tide on food waste will also require action from Government. We have long called for the Government to introduce mandatory food waste reporting. Without measuring the problem, you can’t hope to manage it. Without publication, we will never be able to judge whether real change is happening.
With more challenges ahead, its vital businesses, industry and the government pick up the pace to tackle this threat to our planet and our pockets.