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'Households, Retailers and Food Waste Transitions'

The Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) from the University of Manchester, held a discussion and networking event in London on June 9th and brought together an invited audience of 75 academics, business people, policy makers and representatives of NGOs, campaign groups and third sector organisations.  

On the agenda was not just the issue of food waste reduction but the wider matter of a transition towards a sustainable food system.

At the project’s previous workshop, held in Manchester in November, we found that the discussion moved quickly from food waste reduction to systemic issues of the unsustainability of the global food system. We wanted to explore what the challenges, opportunities and lessons of food waste reduction could offer to understanding and addressing this fundamental issue.

We don’t suggest tackling food waste is sufficient to solve the problems currently facing the food system – but it is necessary.  And we think the story of food waste reduction in the UK is a positive one. There’s still a long way to go. But it’s a story of successful collaboration across different constituencies, amounting to a coalition which has achieved significant results, and challenged some taken for granted and limited understandings of the sustainability challenge.

"That isn’t to say that individual responsibility and raising awareness aren't important...but they're not enough."

The event also saw the launch of the project’s report, ‘Food Waste Transitions: Consumption, Retail and Collaboration towards a Sustainable Food System.'

Baroness Scott of Needham Market, who chaired the recent House of Lord’s inquiry into food waste reduction in the EU, offered an endorsement to the report that underscored one of its central points.

While food waste poses a significant challenge to the sustainability of food systems: “The burden of responsibility for making the necessary changes is often placed on households and consumers. However, successful responses require collaboration across the supply chain.”

In the report we called this ‘distributed responsibility’ – distributed across the supply chain and across constituencies. It stands in contrast to the conventional, overly-individualised approach focused at the household level on behaviour change.

Our research shows that approaches to food waste reduction in the UK have already moved beyond behaviour change to embrace distributed responsibility. That isn’t to say that individual responsibility and raising awareness aren't important...but they're not enough

It’s not enough because framing complex problems in terms of individuals’ behaviours obscures systemic issues. As with food waste, where a problem occurs is often not where the causes and drivers lieand thus where solutions are best sought. And framing behaviour in terms of individuals’ choices underestimates the constraints of conventions, institutions and infrastructures on individuals’ behaviour.

Steve Connor, CEO of Creative Concern, facilitated the discussion session, which addressed three key themes: distributed responsibility; what is missing from existing responses and what barriers there are to be overcome; and the value of food.

Food is too cheap for some and too expensive for others. The issue of food waste draws social inequalities into sharp relief. How might these inequalities (both globally and within the UK) be addressed in responding to other challenges facing the food system? But also how do we reconnect people with the food system so that food is properly valued?

"By 2050 we will need 60% more food. that increase alone represents the total greenhouse gas emissions for the 2 degrees C rise."

Dr. David Evans, SCI project leader, outlined the research: 

Firstly, the SCI has sought to develop social scientific understandings of household and consumer food waste – to look beyond the waste behaviours of individuals to explore the social organisation of food consumption and its place in everyday life.

David has pursued this through following domestic practices in people’s homes and the team has also analysed large scale surveys of eating habits to explore the relationship between the social organisation of meals, the production of leftovers and waste.

Secondly, we’ve explored the ways in which the challenge of food waste reduction is being framed, interpreted and responded to by key stakeholder constituencies – campaigners, businesses, third sector, and policy makers as well as the relationships between them.

David was followed by Dr. Tim Fox, Global Ambassador of Dearman (a technology company focused on sustainable refrigeration and power), and Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, where he lead on the IME’s ‘Global Food: Waste Not Want Not’ report.

Tim noted how food waste as a, "systemic issue from the farm right the way through to the human stomach,” and our almost exclusively global supply chains, underscored the report’s theme of distributed responsibility: “there’s a responsibility in there for all players to step up to the mark."

Tim also echoed, “the incredible way in which food waste has managed to corral and coalesce people around a single flag." He asked those involved in the issue to think, “how we can now take that learning, and methodologies and culture we’ve developed there and transition that to thinking about global supply chains more broadly [and] how we can harness public interest and engagement in food waste to put pressure on politicians, on the corporate community, on professional bodies and NGOs to act for change globally."

Mark Little, Head of Food Waste Reduction at Tesco, reflected on how the issues of global food security and sustainability have driven the food waste agenda, but also how it was driven because, "customers and colleagues cared about wasting food in a world where people go hungry." Mark also outlined a new initiative partnering with FareShare and FoodCloud, charities that redistribute surplus food, with the aim to eliminate edible food waste in stores.

Next, Emma Marsh, who heads up the hugely successful 'Love Food Hate Waste' campaign at WRAP, underscored the urgency of the need to address the issue of a sustainable food system: "By 2050 we will need 60% more food. that increase alone represents the total greenhouse gas emissions for the 2 degrees C rise."

The SCI’s research has shown how WRAP has been central to the coalition building around food waste: through their credibility with business, commitment to evidence, and arms’ length connection to government.

"Food waste should be viewed as how we can optimise valuable nutrients so that they can be fed back into the food system."

Louise Nicholls, Head of Responsible Sourcing – Plan A & Packaging Technology at Marks and Spencer, stressed the need to, "make food waste even more visible," and for food businesses to reward good performance around food waste in their supply chains to make the links between the, "environmental drive to good performance, the ethical drive to good performance and the business case." Louise stressed the importance of this to, "drive the supply chain to embed sustainability, not looking at single issues but overall sustainability strategy."

Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Forum for the Future took a somewhat different tack, arguing that, "food waste is actually a symptom of the food system, whether economically, technically or culturally."

Mark suggested that, “although a lot of progress has been made to address food waste, we need a fundamental step change to radically rethink how we produce and consume food –moving from a fundamentally broken post war system that has externalised many of the costs of food production and actually driven food waste across the food value chain, to one that focuses on sustainable nutrition – moving away from one that maximises production to one based on optimising numbers of people nourished.”

Such a system, a much more closed loop food economy, Mark suggested, would ensure that food waste was truly valued. For Mark, "Food waste should be viewed as how we can optimise valuable nutrients so that they can be fed back into the food system."

The tenor of the discussion that followed was that we need to focus on food, not just food waste as a single issue and also the, 'lifecycle' of issues.

Successes around food waste reflect a level of maturity in the waste issue more generally – in household engagement with recycling, in corporate sustainability initiatives, in infrastructure and institution building.

The event suggested that there was a broad appetite to now harness the successes around food waste – successes of collaboration between constituencies, and of public and corporate engagement – to address the urgent, systemic sustainability issues of the global food system.

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