Food waste is on the increase. British households are throwing the equivalent of 500 meals into the bin every year. Understandably, there has been a lot of hand-wringing. Baroness Parminter, the Liberal Democrat’s environment spokeswoman (the party has so few MPs its environment spokeswoman sits in the Lords), declared:
‘We need legislation to make real progress in changing behaviours and cutting waste.’
No we don’t. We just need another recession. An increase in food waste is possibly the clearest sign that food poverty is declining and most people have never had it so good when it comes to filling their stomachs.
First, the figures. Household food waste in the UK has increased from seven million tonnes in 2012 to 7.3 million tonnes in 2015, a rise of 4.4 per cent, according to Wrap, the government endorsed charity that wages war on food waste. This is embarrassing – the target was for food waste to fall by five per cent over that period. And this was during a time when supermarkets significantly cut back on ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offers and also reformed their confusing ‘sell by’ dates, instead opting for clearer ‘best before’ labels.
Wrap has now persuaded supermarkets to go further and become our substitute domestic science teachers. Notices such as ‘one cup of rice feeds two people’ and ‘bread goes off faster in the fridge’ will be found in shop aisles, on food packaging and when people buy groceries online. But there is only so much nannying signs and reforming packaging can really do. What causes waste is not ignorance, but cheap food.
The escalation in food waste has come at a time when supermarkets started to slug it out on price. After years of a phoney price war, Aldi and Lidl initiated a genuine decline in average selling prices. Profits at the big four (Sainsburys, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons) fell significantly – and the money went mostly into the pockets of consumers. Four pints of milk has now been £1 at all the major supermarkets for well over two years now. Indeed, it fell to 89p in Iceland supermarket briefly. This is astonishingly low. Milk has not been this cheap since the mid-1980s. Over Christmas, Asda was selling one kg of carrots for 20p – a price not seen since 1978. This is food deflation on a dramatic scale. Yes, certain key items have increased during this time, but as a whole food prices have fallen: between 2014 and 2015, food prices fell by 1.7 per cent. Admittedly, many supermarket suppliers have taken the brunt, but consumers have benefited. And they have reacted as consumers have always done in time of plenty: they have been profligate.
Food waste fell during the recession not because people started to care more about the environment. We threw away less stuff because we were short of money and food inflation was on the march. The average number of items shoppers put into their basket fell – not because they were eating less, but because they were wasting less. Consumers used their freezers, they re-heated left-overs, they made what they had bought go further. Consumers are rational. They save in times of shortage, and don’t worry so much when there’s plenty to go around.
The only guaranteed way to reverse the increase in food waste is to increase prices. And only the most dyed-in-the-wool statist would want people to pay more for their dinner.