Lancaster University: Reducing waste in the food system

Accounting for the environmental, health and social costs of food production could help cut the 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by waste in our food system, say the winners of the Global Food Security programme (GFS) Policy Lab competition.

A group of early career researchers have released their report and policy recommendations on how to reduce the huge unmeasured waste and costs that occur at every stage of our food system. Producing, consuming and wasting food generates impacts that cost our society, but these costs are not normally included in the price of food we buy.

A tool in the toolkit: Can True Cost Accounting remove siloed thinking about food loss and waste? came out of a three-day Global Food Security Policy Lab workshop last April. The workshop ended with a competition between three teams to come up with an idea for an investigation that would be presented in the Green Zone of COP26 and to Government, as well as being published as a report by UK Research and Innovation.

Miranda Burke, a post-graduate researcher with the Waitrose Collaborative Training Partnership at Lancaster University, was part of the winning team.

She said: “We saw a huge disparity in the prices of goods compared with what they cost to the environment and society and so wanted to explore ‘True Cost Accounting’ and whether it might help tackle the huge issue of food loss and waste throughout the whole supply chain.

“The implications of accounting for these external costs should drive better decision making from all sectors of the food system. Consideration for better welfare, human health and planetary health should drive a fairer and more accessible world on everyone’s dinner plate,”

Nine months after the workshop, the team have produced their report, which suggests that the True Cost Accounting (TCA) tool can help expose the mismatch between those who create societal costs, and those who pay for them.

Justine Pearce, a co-author from the Royal Veterinary College, said: “We are paying for this damage in hidden ways, currently, for every £1 paid directly for food, we incur an additional £1 cost from hidden external costs”.

Examples include how the price of high-fat and high-sugar foods do not include the costs of running public health campaigns, and how the price of meat does not include the costs of dealing with environmental impacts from livestock farming.

Over a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year. This wasted food also represents wasted fertilisers, pesticides and human effort, unnecessary use of farming land, transportation and consumer money. It is estimated that the economic costs of food loss and waste are $700 billion a year, and social costs $900 billion a year.

“The implications of accounting for these external costs should drive better decision making from all sectors of the food system. Consideration for better welfare, human health and planetary health should drive a fairer and more accessible world on everyone’s dinner plate,” says Miss Burke, whose PhD research looks at reducing food loss and waste in the supply chain using infrared spectroscopy.

TCA can also be a tool to signal to consumers the social and environmental footprints of different food items, so empowering them to make choices to minimise food loss and waste.

“We believe more work is needed to create a database linking relevant schemes and metrics… potentially providing an effective holistic and simple labelling system for consumers,” explains Miss Burke.

This is one of six policy recommendations and changes to practices that the report’s authors believe could help meet our net zero goals.

Another recommendation is to introduce mandatory reporting of the food lost and wasted by different stakeholders, with binding targets to decrease this each year, “because what gets measured, gets managed” explains author Mehroosh Tak, from the Royal Veterinary College.

Miss Burke, who is working with vegetable producer Suncrop Ltd for her PhD, joined the Lancaster Environment Centre as a mature student after leaving school at 16 and spending 10 years working. She hopes for a career in environmental and social policy and science communication after she completes her PhD.

“Despite the pressing global threats, science is beautiful, creative, inspiring, and importantly: fun. I believe everyone can be part of it in different ways (which) will inevitably help the planet and society. I think this comes from communication and providing the means through policy.”

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