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'The invisible environmental disaster': Why food waste matters - and how to avoid it

The UK throws away £14bn of edible food each year. Food waste charity Wrap explains the impact of wasting food, and how we can help.

Jo Churchill watches on during the Food Waste Action Week event.

Amidst the distant clanging of pots and pans, a small crowd is huddled around a tray of potato cakes at Westminster Kingsway College kitchen, fixed with an intense stare.

Or perhaps that’s just me, I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast. Nevertheless, ordinary potato cakes these are not. Served with a date and banana skin chutney – they are part of a menu incorporating the 10 most-wasted ingredients in UK households.

WKC culinary lecturer Vince Kelly has been talking climate minister Jo Churchill through the menu – which also features potato skins, leftover bread, and the dregs of fruit juices. The MP is here to mark Food Waste Action Week – a campaign by environmental charity Wrap to raise awareness of the climate impact of wasting food. Kelly developed the menu especially for the visit.

“Over the course of the week, UK homes will produce around 87,000 tonnes of food waste”, says Catherine David, director of collaboration and change at Wrap. “It is the invisible environmental disaster, contributing more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights combined”.

“The fact is, were it a country, food waste would be the third biggest contributor of greenhouse gas behind the USA and China”, she continues. “Food Waste Action Week is about raising awareness of the environmental impact all this wasted food is having.”

Throwing good food away is a terrible waste of resources, water and energy”, agrees Churchill. “Food Waste Action Week is hugely important in bringing together the entire food supply chain, from farm to fork, to take action on this critical issue.” 

Around one third of the food produced globally is lost or wasted, accounting for eight to 10 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. A UN-backed study estimates that in 2015, global food systems emitted 18 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – as much as the entire world did in 1976.

“Each year, 4.5 million tonnes – worth £14 billion – of edible food goes to waste in our homes. Producing all this food requires an area the size of Wales”, David tells us. “We want people to save money and avoid food ending up in the bin, and help take the pressure off the environment.”

As well as having a heavy carbon footprint, agriculture requires a huge amount of land and water. Modern industrial farming practices create huge areas populated by a single type of plant – a disaster for local biodiversity, and for species dependent on the habitats destroyed. Demands for homogeneity and fast yields have seen diverse local species of grain displaced by acres of ‘near-clones’, leaving food supplies vulnerable to pests and disease. This in turn leaves farmers increasingly dependent on herbicides, insecticides, and fertilisers, which further degrade the soil and pollute nearby rivers.

Leftover roast pork pie, topped with crispy potato skins. Image: WRAP

Environmental campaigners argue that reducing the amount of land used for agriculture is essential to halt the UK’s collapse in biodiversity. Replacing farmland with habitats such as forests or peat-bogs would provide natural carbon storage – something which is vital if the UK is to achieve net zero.

“Typical triggers for food waste are preparing or serving too much”, says David. “The UK’s most wasted food is the potato, as portions can be difficult to estimate. The Love Food Hate Waste website has a portion planner to help get these spot on for your own requirements.”

“Another common trigger is not using food up in time, and that’s largely down to storage”, she tells us. “Our A to Z storage guide will tell you how to keep a multitude of foods at in top quality – and always make a list before shopping, or take a shelfie of your fridge and food cupboards on your mobile; to save time and avoid over-buying.”

“When it comes to minimising food waste in the home it doesn’t need to be complicated”, says Kelly. “Be careful how much you purchase – do a shopping list, be organised, and try not to be hungry when you shop”. He recommends keeping a sharp knife and a wok – “a very versatile piece of kitchen equipment” – and suggests new cooks look at the skills section of the BBC Good Food website.

As well as encouraging consumers to avoid food waste, Wrap works with businesses across the supply chain. David tells us: “The single most important action any business can take is to be part of the UK’s movement against food waste and that means applying the Target Measure Act approach developed by Wrap through their own businesses, and with their suppliers.”

The potato cake was delicious. Well-nourished, and galvanised by what I’ve heard, I set off for the office, my head buzzing with plans to organise my freezer.

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