The problem of food waste is due to the low value people in the West put on cheap food. And cheap food is a product, in part, of the modern, industrial food system. However, amid some scepticism, the industry is trying to act on the problem. Ben Cooper argues, ultimately, the dynamics of supply and demand will right the situation.

Food is cheap, we don’t value it and so we waste it. In essence, that simple truth can be said to lie at the centre of the problem of food waste. It may not tell the whole story but intuitively when a resource is abundant – and cheap as a result – people will be more profligate with it.

Given the steep rise in food prices in recent years it might seem odd to focus on cheap food as a problem. But what we are talking about here is a mega trend, going back decades…centuries in fact.

According to official statistics, the average UK household was devoting around 16% of its annual expenditure to food in 1984. Go back further and the figure is far higher. But by 2008 this percentage had fallen to around 9%. 

As a result of recent rises, it has now crept back up to over 11%. In the most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) Family Spending Survey, published late last year and based on 2011 data, the average family in the UK spent GBP54.80 on food and drink out of total average weekly expenditure of GBP483.60. 

While there is justified concern about recent food price rises, not least because of the sharp rise in food poverty among lower income groups, comparisons with earlier times show food is still cheap.

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Whereas human beings once spent most of their time and physical resources cultivating, and before that hunting or gathering, their food, our ‘development’ over centuries has brought the world’s developed markets at least to the situation we see today of readily accessible, mass-marketed food. We can – and do – take for granted that food is instantly available and affordable to us.

Apart from making us wasteful, the evolution of food production and distribution has created other problems. 

Because people have so little involvement with the sourcing or cultivating of their food, they have less appreciation of where food comes from, how the processed foods they often eat are constituted and the significance of different food groups. This, along with an over-reliance on less healthful processed foods, has been a key contributor to the problems around diet and health seen in so many developed economies, not least the UK. 

Meanwhile our modern, highly evolved global food distribution system has become staggeringly complex, leading to problems of traceability and integrity revealed most shockingly in the recent horsemeat scandal.

However, waste is becoming an increasingly dominant issue and is back in the news again this month, with the signing of the third phase of the Courtauld Commitment by 45 food retailers and manufacturers, and the launch of the Tesco and Society report and campaign.

Tesco CEO Philip Clarke’s accompanying article in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend attracted much comment and a fair deal of opprobrium.

The retailer, like its 44 fellow signatories to Courtauld 3, talks about ways in which it can contribute to tackling food waste. It is attacked for hypocrisy by those who believe the practices of major supermarkets and manufacturers are at the root of the problem. They do not need a lecture from Philip Clarke who should attend to the plank in his own eye.

As the country’s largest food retailer, Tesco is often the focus of criticism for problems which apply more broadly. The retailer is a ready target and to a degree can be seen as a proxy for the ‘system’. 

While it is vital to identify root causes accurately, ultimately the blame game only gets you so far. As is the case with so many debates around sustainability, talk of culpability and complicity eventually has to give way to more constructive discussion, and taking shared responsibility for making things better. Companies, politicians and consumers all have a role to play. It sounds trite but that’s how it is.

In the Tesco and Society report, the retailer makes waste one of its top three priorities though its four headline ‘commitments’ around waste will be criticised for being rather generalised and lacking in measurable goals.

Other retailers may have done better at setting targets and reporting on their progress but in the context of the entire food waste issue, it is the model of food distribution itself rather than the companies that is the problem.

Driving efficiencies into their systems to beat competitors on price, give consumers the lower prices they want and maximise profits is ingrained in the business models of modern retailers and manufacturers. However, while for many years food becoming cheaper may have reflected growing efficiency in the food supply chain, this is palpably no longer the case. Today’s system might provide relatively cheap food, but looking at the alarming figures on waste from farm to fork (or bin) it cannot be said to do so efficiently.

Ultimately, the situation will right itself due to the simple realities of supply and demand. The upward tick in food prices is largely borne out of higher commodity and fuel prices, and represents the very early stirrings of the substantial readjustment we will see over the coming years and decades. 

Just as a gradual evolution brought us to where we are today, a further evolution – and it may not be as gentle – will mean people everywhere will be spending more of their income on food. Just how painful that readjustment will become remains to be seen. What is certain is that as food becomes more expensive, we will waste less of it.