The Waste Land

This, on the face of it, has been a historic day.

For the first time, one of the major UK supermarkets – Tesco – has published independently verified statistics on food waste generated from its stores, at each stage of what it calls the “value chain” (producer, retailer and consumer).

Much of the news coverage has centred around the headline figure: 28,500 tonnes of produce was thrown away by Tesco over the first six months of this year. Isn’t that just shocking?

Well, yes it is. I’m amazed that the figure is so low. It’s equivalent to just 0.87% of the total produce sold by the company over the same period; and when viewed in the context of the 14.8 million tonnes of food discarded in the UK each year, the figure is so small as to be statistically almost insignificant.

So, well done Tesco, eh? Not entirely.

Certainly, Tesco deserves credit for publishing these statistics. It makes it highly likely that other supermarkets will follow their lead – it’s an unwise organisation indeed that doesn’t take note of what the UK’s largest retailer is doing – and it’s to be hoped that future reports will provide a more comprehensive breakdown of waste generation.

And, while it may be couched in retail jargon, it’s absolutely appropriate that the report should cover all three stages of the process, from production through to consumption (or not). By doing so, it draws attention to a far more relevant and troubling figure: a total of 32% of the food in Tesco’s “value chain” ends up being wasted. Leaving aside the negligible losses from stores, this wastage is divided equally between producers and consumers.

On reflection, it’s hardly surprising that an organisation as vast and sophisticated as Tesco should have become pretty good at stock control. After all, it’s the one stage of the process at which the retailer stands to lose. Throw away a loaf of bread instead of selling it, and that’s a quid the shareholders will never see. Granted, they may not much care either; but throw away million upon million of loaves, and they probably will.

But just because they’re not the ones physically chucking the food away, that doesn’t mean the supermarkets can avoid their share of responsibility for wastage elsewhere in the chain.

Producers discard perfectly good food when it doesn’t meet the aesthetic standards set by the retail giants (although the initiative to sell some of the “uglier” fruit and veg through their budget ranges is a limited but welcome one).

And the pricing policies of many supermarkets – dubious “discounts”, multi-buy offers, and/or disproportionate mark-ups for smaller quantities – can make it seem almost nonsensical to buy in anything other than bulk.

At the time of writing, for instance, a 250g pack of Tesco minced beef will cost you £1.75. Throw in another 25p – and really, what’s 25p? – and you get double the quantity. If you’re feeding a family of four, this is excellent news. But if you’re only cooking for yourself, you’re going to end up eating, freezing or throwing away an awful lot of beef. And most of the time, we take the third option, leading to the average UK family discarding £680 worth of food each year.

In fairness to Tesco, its report includes some acknowledgement of its own role in the process, along with a few positive policy changes to address the worst of the waste. Having established that 68% of its bagged salad is wasted – more than half of this by consumers – it’s announced an end to multi-buy offers on larger packs, and the introduction of resealable packs across its range. All this is positive news.

But in the context of Tesco’s wider operation, it’s pretty small beer. The end of multi-buy deals, while a laudable move in isolation, applies only to bagged salads; not to bread, fruit or any of the other waste culprits identified in the report.

And there’s no meaningful indication that the retailer’s broader approach is likely to change. Like its competitors, it will continue to entice customers through the illusion of value: buy lots, pay (relatively) little. Whether we actually use the food we buy will continue to be a secondary consideration, because the supermarkets take on neither the direct responsibility nor the financial impact.

A limited choice

So what can we, as the consumers at the tail end of the “value chain”, do about this?

In the short term, there are a number of things we could do. For a start, we could change where – and how – we shop. Take a trip back in time, to a period before 3 for 2 offers, and buy only what we need, weighed to our specifications.

If you’re very lucky, you might still have ready access to good independent butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and bakers. Failing that, Morrisons sell a greater range of loose, fresh produce than most supermarkets – in their larger branches, at least – under their Market Street brand.

But not all of us are so well served for food shops that we can choose freely and equally between them. For those without cars, proximity will continue to be the overriding factor. And the miniature urban offshoots of the big supermarkets – in which you’ll struggle to find much, if any, unpackaged produce – are rapidly taking over our high streets, driving more and more independent retailers to the wall. Increasingly, we find ourselves buying pre-packaged food, for want of a realistic alternative, in quantities determined not by the consumer but by the retailer.

And in any case, it’s not a straightforward equation of “unpackaged food = less waste”. Fresh meat sold from butchers’ counters will spoil much more quickly than its modern packaged equivalent. In other words, it’s far from guaranteed that buying food loose will lead to less food waste – as distinct from packaging waste –for either retailers or consumers.

Alternatively, we could keep buying in bulk from the supermarket, but make better use of our freezers. Take advantage of the bigger packs and the multi-buy offers, cook what we need and freeze the rest for future use. But that depends on us having sufficient freezer space at our disposal. In my rented flat, equipped with only a small fridge/freezer, it wouldn’t be a realistic option – even if I ever got round to defrosting the freezer compartment.

A variation on that theme is to get into the habit of buying and cooking in larger quantities, then freezing the leftovers as home-made ready meals. This, though, relies on us having the time and inclination to prepare and cook the larger quantities in the first place; and of course, it too is dependent on a freezer that’s up to the task.

A longer-term option, advocated today by Friends of the Earth, is to lobby our politicians, as well as our retailers, to put a stop to the 3 for 2 offers and suchlike. But in practice, I suspect this would be somewhere between pointless and self-defeating. For those who currently benefit from the incentives to buy big – those with large families and/or even larger freezers – the change would be entirely unwelcome. And for the rest of us, it would be largely ineffectual.

No supermarket CEO would be overly perturbed to be told that certain discounts or multi-purchase offers were to be outlawed. He – for it is almost certain to be a “he” – would simply instruct his company to look for ways to circumvent the legislation, ensuring that it had no meaningful impact on our over-purchasing habits.

And in case you don’t believe me, I have precedent on my side. In Scotland, it’s now illegal to offer multi-buy deals on alcoholic drinks. But go into any Scottish supermarket and compare the unit price of a single can of Tennent’s to that of a 20-pack, and you’ll soon see how much effect the legislation is having. The politicians know this too, which is why they’ve looked instead to minimum unit pricing – which the retail and drinks industries have been fighting all the way. Of course they have: because unlike the law on bulk-buying, there’d be no wriggling around it.

Hate waste, hate recipes

So if we’re not about to change the way we shop and cook, and the retailers aren’t going to alter their pricing policies significantly, what are we left with – other than a dustbin full of wasted food?

In the search for a solution, the Love Food, Hate Waste website is a pretty good place to start. It contains useful advice, statistics and videos on various aspects of food waste and how to reduce it at home through better storage practice, effective portion planning and so on.

It also contains recipes. An awful lot of recipes, accessed from a prominent link on the homepage. Some are good; some less so (the broccoli in this stock will make it smell and taste a bit, well, farty); and a few commit the classic recipe faux pas of omitting key ingredients from the list, such as the curry paste in this curry.

In fairness, there are quite a few recipes specifically for using up leftovers (including the curry-less curry I’ve just mentioned). But there’s still something of a logical problem here. If your first step towards reducing waste is to reach for a recipe, there’s a very good chance you’ll end up wasting more food, not less.

Even using the built-in search filters, you’ll be scrolling through an awful lot of recipes before you find one for which you already have all the ingredients. In other words, as long as you take an entirely recipe-led approach to cooking, you’re going to have to buy more food in order to use up the stuff you already have.

The site proposes a solution to this: make a shopping list, so that you only buy what you need. “Shopping for specific ingredients with meals in mind and taking a list helps ensure we use what we buy.”

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Well, if you’re doing your food shopping using the old-style weights and measures approach, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. If the meal you have in mind requires 250g of minced beef, two carrots, and so on, that’s exactly what you ask for. And if you need twice as much, you’ll pay twice as much. It’ll make for a pretty dull stint of recipe-reading, list-making and list-reading-out; but if that’s how you choose to shop and cook, fair enough.

But if you’re among the pre-packaged, supermarket-shopping majority, the situation isn’t so straightforward. You might only need 250g of mince; but when you find that you can get twice as much for virtually the same price, do you stick to your guns and buy the smaller, marked-up pack? Almost certainly not. And if you do, the only beneficiary is the supermarket.

Not only that, but you’re effectively ruling out the prospect of finding an alternative bargain on the day. You might arrive at the supermarket to find that there’s no attractively-priced mince on sale at all, but the free range chickens are half price. There’s little doubt which is the better deal; but if you’re sticking determinedly to your predetermined shopping list, you’ll have little choice but to stick to your original, now disappointingly expensive plan.

And most significantly of all, it’s highly unlikely that your various ingredients will all be packaged up in the precise quantities you require. You might find the 250g of mince you need – expensively or otherwise – but be forced to buy a bag of a dozen carrots when the recipe only requires two. Without that vital but much underrated cooking skill – flexibility – you’re still going to be faced with leftover ingredients, and potential waste.

It’s notable, incidentally, that most of the big supermarkets are listed as partners of Love Food Hate Waste. This is none too surprising; after all, if you’re a major player in the food industry, it’s good PR to say you’re anti-waste, however accurate or otherwise that description might be.

But let’s be realistic here. For the supermarkets, all that really matters is being seen to hate waste; they don’t actually have to hate it. Tesco might have announced a few small changes this week, aimed at reducing consumer waste on a few headline products; but ultimately, it barely matters to them whether we buy a little food with a large profit margin, or a lot of food with a smaller margin. If the unused food ends up in a domestic dustbin, it’s hardly their fault, is it? We’re the ones who left it to rot, not them.

I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that the supermarkets exert a direct and malign influence on campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste. What I would contend, though, is that many of their stocking and pricing policies are fundamentally incompatible with the “only buy what you need” mantra. As consumers, we’re faced with a choice: either we pay a substantial premium to buy what we need, or we pick up an apparent bargain in buying what we don’t. In reality, that’s no choice at all.

An alternative (and a plug)

There is one further option, however: abandon the recipe and the shopping list, and make the supermarkets’ pricing policies work for you.

For starters, get your cupboard and fridge stocked up with versatile, non-perishable (or at least slow-to-perish) foods: rice and pasta; tins of tomatoes and pulses; longer-life vegetables (onions, garlic, squashes); salted meats (pancetta, chorizo); salt, sugar and spices; oils and vinegars.

When you find these ingredients on bulk-buy deals, fill your boots (or, more accurately, your trolley). Unlike the multi-buy salad offers, these are to your advantage as much as the supermarket’s. You know they’ll get used before they go off; so if there are economies of scale to be had, you’d be daft not to make the most of them. Moreover, it’ll leave you with enough food to make a broad range of meals from scratch, so you won’t find yourself trudging to Tesco Metro on a grim February evening when you don’t want or need to.

But when you do come to shop for fresh food, my strong advice would be to take a good look at the shopping list advice on the Love Food Hate Waste website, and do the opposite. Don’t plan your meals before you go: instead, walk into the shop (supermarket or otherwise) with an open mind, work out what you like the look of, and see where the value is.

You’ll need a rough idea of how much food to buy in total, of course; but, just as importantly, you’ll also need the skills and confidence to turn a few core ingredients, Ready Steady Cook-style, into a coherent and tasty meal. (Or – if you’ve been obliged to buy in larger quantities than you’d have liked – several coherent and tasty meals.)

Of course, if you’re a lifelong list-maker and recipe-follower, this is going to mean reversing your perspective. Instead of thinking “what do I need to make this meal?”, you’ll need to think “what can I make with these ingredients?” And the potential problem with this is that you might feel you don’t know how to.

If I can, I’d like to help.

I’ve written a book, The No Recipe Manifesto, all about how, why and when to cook without recipes. It sets out to reconnect the reader with some of the lost skills of cooking – resourcefulness, flexibility and creativity – while also bringing out the sheer pleasure of making things up as you go along: a pleasure that is enhanced further by the knowledge that you’ve just made good use of ingredients that might otherwise have ended up in the bin.

The book will be coming out next year – I’ll let you know exactly where, when and in what format(s) as soon as I’m able – but in the meantime, I’ll be posting here on all aspects of non-recipe cooking, aimed in particular at the inexperienced or nervous cook.

Will it address all the iniquities of our supermarket-dominated food industry? Of course not. But it will offer plenty of ideas on how to spend less, waste less, eat better and have more fun – even if, through obligation or choice, you end up doing most of your food shopping among the pre-packaged, multi-buy temptations of your nearest supermarket.

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2 thoughts on “The Waste Land

  1. “what can I make with these ingredients?” – This is at least a bi-weekly thought on my mind. Looking forward to seeing where you go with this.

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