How Northern Ireland can tackle food waste

2 Jun 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Jun 2017

Too good to waste ...

The biggest growth area for the Third Sector over the past few years has been food banks. A report published this week shows the extent of this. 

According to the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) there are now more than 2,000 food banks giving out weekly food parcels to people in hardship.

This backs a report published last month by the largest network of food banks The Trussell Trust which distributed 1.2 million parcels in 2016/2017, the ninth successive annual rise.

Ironically the growth in food banks coincides with increasing concern about food wastage. Here we analyse both and look at some examples of creative solutions adopted elsewhere that might work in Northern Ireland.

The IFAN report is an attempt to provide a systematic database of all the UK’s foodbanks. Whilst the Trussell Trust regularly publishes information about its own network, little has been known about the location and scale of other food banks until now.

The study counts the 1,373 distribution centres that operate out of Trussell Trust’s 419 food banks in its figures alongside 651 “independents” to make a total of 2,024 food banks. It defines a food bank as an organisation that gives out food parcels on a weekly basis. So this does not include informal food parcel distribution by social welfare charities, children’s centres, churches, housing associations, hospitals and other groups.

Trussell Trust figures for Northern Ireland show an astonishing surge in demand. A report published in November of last year recorded a 43% increase in the previous six months.

The growth in food banks demonstrate not just the rise in deprivation, but also its geographical spread, with rural areas just as much impacted as the big cities.

There are many disturbing issues raised by this phenomenon.  Not least of which is that one of the wealthiest countries in the world now relies on charities to feed its poor, evidence of the steady erosion of the Welfare State, once supported across the political divide. Political complacency is also troubling: asked about the problem last week former Minister Dominic Raab said: “the typical user of food banks is not someone who is languishing in poverty, it’s someone who has a cashflow problem episodically”. He was presumably referring to delays in Welfare Payments.

However in other parts of the world the voluntary sector is showing extraordinary ingenuity in tackling two equally troubling issues, food poverty and food waste simultaneously.

Food waste is thought to consume a quarter of all water used by agriculture, and to occupy a cropland space the size of China. It also generates around 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than Europe’s share of global emissions.

Globally 30% of agricultural land is used to grow crops which are subsequently wasted. The figure for fruit and vegetables is 45%.

These are staggering numbers – even more so as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow and so many live in food poverty.

In Catalonia a growing movement is seeking to do something about that. They call themselves the Espigoladors (gleaners). They harvest unwanted crops from farms and have launched an “Es Imperfect” (is imperfect) brand of jams, soups and sauces made from recovered produce. These are selling so well in Catalonia that a large processing plant is to be built shortly to increase capacity.

It is also hoped to be able to offer farmers tax rebates on donated crops soon which will massively increase stocks. If such a model were replicated elsewhere the impact would be significant.

Denmark is another leader in tackling food waste. It boasts the world’s first food waste supermarket WeFood, which has proved so successful it has opened a second branch. It sells products for around half the price charged in regular outlets. There must be scope for social entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland to study this model.

The French has gone one step further. Earlier this year it became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food, punishing them with fines of up to €75,000 if they refused to donate it to food banks or charities instead.

Campaigners have now attracted a million signatures for a petition calling for the ban to be extended across the European Union. Northern Ireland, given its size would be the ideal place to trial such a scheme in the UK. Again this would generate opportunities for the Third Sector as charities would be required to partner supermarkets in re-distribution. Food industry insiders have often observed that voluntary schemes are never as successful as government-enforced action. The big stick is therefore often the best way to achieve progress.

Over the border FoodCloud is already working with supermarkets to re-distribute food waste. Its model is so successful that it has expanded into the UK, and is currently working with the supermarket chain Waitrose.

All over the world there are cafes who sell food that was otherwise destined for the bin. An industry is emerging powered by social entrepreneurs who are helping to solve two problems, food poverty and food waste simultaneously and also providing employment and generating wealth from waste. According to the UN if food waste were to be reduced by just 25% there would be sufficient to feed everyone who is currently malnourished. There are countless opportunities for progress on this and it would be good to see more of this great work taking place here, in Northern Ireland. 

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