Culture of Waste: Skipchen response to French supermarket ban on food waste.
In May France made headline news for taking the lead in the battle against food waste.
The legislation bans supermarkets over 1000 m2 from deliberately spoiling unsold edible food with chemicals and bans any edible food from going to landfill.
Instead, unsold edible food must be donated to local charities and redirected back into the human food chain or composted, fed to pigs or anaerobically digested to produce biogas.
The new law has been celebrated by many as an historic turning point in the fight against global food waste.
In a similar move, Tesco announced in June that they are trialling a scheme where charities can pick up unsold edible food for ‘free’ using an app.
However, we feel it is important to look beyond the click bait headlines and ask some important questions.
Does the legislation address the issue of food waste at its source?
In our industrial agricultural system, farmers bear the brunt of a supermarket monopoly which forces farmers to overproduce. They have no guarantee that their stock will be bought as supermarkets refuse to enter into contracts and, at whim can change specifications such as quality, quantity and packaging.
These exploitative practices result in millions of tonnes of produce either never being harvested or rejected for arbitrary reasons before it even makes it into the supermarket supply chain.
An all too familiar story is a farmer in Lancashire who was forced to plough back acres of cauliflowers because the supermarket stated that the cauliflowers were too big to fit on their shelves.
Such stories collectively contribute to the frankly unimaginable waste statistics we are being confronted with. In the UK alone nearly 30% of our vegetable crop is never harvested due to these exploitative practices.
Globally 1.6 million tonnes of food waste is produced for the same reasons.
This overproduction also keeps the prices down for the supermarket who pay many farmers less than the cost of production of their stock. It’s then left to the taxpayer to subsidise the farmers and foot the bill.
At the other end of the supply chain, households are often blamed for causing the vast majority of the problem.
It is through this business model supermarkets are able to push their food waste up and down the supply chain, dodge blame and avoid accountability.
To this end, the new French law fails to address the root cause of global and national food waste.
The law does not provide a mandate forcing supermarkets to eliminate or even reduce the amount of food waste they incur in the first place.
What about accountability?
As it stands the French law has not set a minimum figure of food that should be redirected back into human consumption.
Whilst composting, feeding pigs and anaerobic digestion is better than food going to landfill it is also an inefficient use of energy.
The energy recovered from anaerobic digestion is only 1% of the embedded energy that goes into food production.
Irrespective of the inefficiency, supermarket producers grow food to feed people and that’s what food should be used for.
French supermarkets are not mandated to publish their food waste figures and currently there is negligible food waste data in existence from this sector.
France has pledged to the EU it will reduce its food waste by 50% by 2025.
However the lack of transparency from French supermarkets is making it difficult to set tangible baseline data so that food waste reductions targets can be assessed.
There is no mechanism in place to monitor how much food is being redirected back into the human food chain in comparison to compost, anaerobic digestion and pig feed, and no means of auditing what percentage of edible food is being donated to charity in ratio to supermarket’s total annual waste.
The only way to measure how much food is being given to charities is through a tax break system which rewards supermarkets by granting a 60% tax break on the total economic value of goods donated per annum.
Therefore, supermarkets will profit off a law that does not tell them to actually address the cause of food waste, and are profiting off a problem they caused in the first place.
The French legislation and the Tesco trial also works as a PR stunt, that heralds supermarkets as the benevolent and generous solution to the food waste problem.
It shifts the beam of blame away from them, and masks from the public eye that supermarkets are the root cause of the problem.
This allows them to be less accountable for their actions as it hinders political and public traction to pressure supermarkets to reduce waste at source and take responsibility for the food waste they ‘indirectly’ produce.
Is it just us, or does it sound like supermarkets are being economically rewarding for ‘wasting’ and then reap all the PR benefits for giving food to charity?
How much will charities benefit and how much does this address food poverty and homelessness?
Whilst donating food to charity to feed the homeless is deemed a very positive side effect of a global problem, it does very little to address the root structural causes of poverty and homelessness either.
Significantly, and luckily there are not enough homeless or hungry people in France or the UK to eat all the unsold edible food ‘waste’ supermarkets produce, because despicably there is a phenomenal amount of it.
A quarter of the food waste produced by the US and Europe alone would be enough to feed the globe’s 1 billion malnourished people.
From our own experience working in Bristol, we regularly work with other foodbanks and homeless charities to rescue their excess food surplus.
Every 2-3 days we pick up nearly 1 tonne of surplus fruit and veg from a local homeless charity housing 60 people a night. The homeless charity are locked into an agreement with a supermarket that forces them to take all their surplus every day even though they can’t transport, store or even use it.
FareShare, the UK’s biggest food waste redistribution charity, already redistribute 1-3% of the UK’s supermarket waste. Yet even they lack the resources and infrastructure to manage this surplus stock.
This is partly due to sheer volume and partly because they work within the same regulations that the government impose that create supermarket waste at the end point of the supply chain in the first place. These regulations being that any food that has past it’s expiry date is not fit for human consumption, and cannot be redistributed.
The charity sector is not capable of absorbing the amount of food surplus being produced by supermarkets. There simply does not exist the infrastructure to support it.
Skipchen and The Real Junk Food Project Network are the only organisations that take and serve food ‘waste’ from a food waste charity who redistribute supermarket food waste. And yes that’s how insane it is.
What are the costs and who’s footing the bill?
Whilst the supermarkets could be getting tax breaks for doing the ‘right’ thing and not being punished for a problem they created, it is the charity sector that will be paying the price.
Picking up ‘free’ food from a supermarket is not free.
It requires a temperature controlled vehicle to pick it up, transport fuel, a staff wage and a large temperature controlled storage unit, the cooking facilities to prep, cook and serve the food, plus the staff and skills to deliver this extensive service.
Food redistribution is a logistical and practical operation that costs time, money and energy.
Who is covering these costs? The supermarkets aren’t.
And when charities inevitably can’t process all this surplus food fast enough in a safe manner, it is they who will have to organise and pay for the disposal of the food waste.
The burden of food waste is being pushed onto an already overburdened charity sector, disguised as a freebie and rebranded as a resourceful solution to food poverty, one that comes with multiple new problems.
In the meantime, supermarkets get a gold star and a free waste management service plus a tax break.
At Skipchen we have intercepted 17.4 tonnes of food from going to landfill in 8 months.
With five full time staff this is equates to 14,600 hours per year. At a living wage our staff costs alone would be £109, 500.
This does not include our infrastructure costs of buying and running a refrigerated van, our insurance, storage, fuel and cooking facilities.
Currently, everyone in Skipchen operates under a voluntary basis.
If we are really serious about eliminating food waste, we need to be addressing the root cause of the problem and introduce tangible legislation that hold supermarkets accountable for their waste and punish them for it.
In our current system supermarkets breed and cultivate a culture of waste. Food waste occurs along all points in the supply chain, and the more waste there is the more supermarkets benefit.
This law does nothing to address the underlying business practices responsible for driving global food waste in the first place, and may undermine efforts to address the systemic cause of this system of waste we live in.
When the systemic cause is not addressed, the problem gets shunted along, creating another problem for other people to solve, reinforcing the cycle of injustice.
Whilst, the law can certainly be seen as a ‘step in the right direction’ it is important to bear in mind that a good idea is not enough on its own. It requires the right intention, execution, monitoring, evaluation and the ability to adapt in order to achieve what it sets out to do.
The real progress to be found in the news about the French legislation, is that for the first time public pressure and concern regarding food waste is strong enough to force the hand of governments and powerful multi national supermarket corporations.