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The great food waste scandal: 2.9 m tons of produce being dumped in landfill

Just a tine percentage of the £750m subsidy for waste plants would help alleviate the daily battle for millions of struggling families (BARRY DOWNARD/DEBUT ART)
Just a tine percentage of the £750m subsidy for waste plants would help alleviate the daily battle for millions of struggling families (BARRY DOWNARD/DEBUT ART)

A staggering 2.9 million tons of good-to-eat farm produce is being dumped in landfill, incinerated or sent to waste treatment plants that produce biogas as soaring numbers of people go hungry nationwide, an Evening Standard investigation reveals.

These mountains of edible farm products — including carrots, courgettes, mushrooms, cauliflowers, lettuce, potatoes, onions, apples, pears and oranges — are enough to provide the equivalent of seven billion meals a year. What makes this waste especially egregious is that it comes at a time of record need nationwide, with 13.7 million people, including four million children, experiencing food insecurity in the summer, according to the Food Foundation, a figure that has more than doubled since 2020.

The scale of discarded farm produce is laid bare in a report called Hidden Waste, published last year by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which exposes how 9,600 square kilometres of land, the equivalent of almost half the land in Wales, is used to produce perfectly good food that will never get sent for human consumption.

While some farm waste is inevitable — due to over-production, weather variability, fluctuations in demand and rejection of produce for cosmetic reasons such as wonky carrots — it is what happens next that is cause for concern. Instead of being used to feed the hungry, surplus food is bulldozed and left to rot, or used for animal feed, or sent to landfill or anaerobic digestion plants to produce biogas.

This month, Britain’s two largest food redistribution charities, FareShare and the Felix Project, report surging demand for food from charities and schools they are unable to satisfy mostly due to an acute shortage of surplus food. FareShare said it has 1,500 charities, schools, community groups and faith organisations on its waiting list while the Felix Project has 618.

They are calling on the Government to act ahead of a public accounts committee meeting on Monday, which will hold Defra to account on its lack of progress in delivering their resource and waste strategy — which has included delaying mandatory food waste reporting and axing of funding for surplus food redistribution.

Arnhem Wharf Primary School in the Isle of Dogs — situated across the road from multi-million-pound apartments near Canary Wharf — has been on Felix’s waiting list for more than two years. Over 40 per cent of their 690 pupils are eligible for free school meals, but the cost of living crisis has led to a fast deteriorating situation.

Nahar Rahman, deputy safeguarding lead, said: “I have been here 22 years and I have never seen things this bad. This week we got nothing. Zero. We have 100 families who need food and a dozen acute cases who rely on us.”

Ms Rahman added: “Every week I have parents who sidle over to me and ask ‘Is there anything left? Please can you keep a bag aside for me next week?’ Some are in low-income jobs, others in debt — they are embarrassed to ask. Many are in tears. They feel desperate. It’s heart-breaking because the need is great but we get so little food. Food from the Felix Project has never been more needed.”

FareShare, which provides surplus food to 18 network partners across the country including the Felix Project in London, said the Government needs to help. It added that while need for food is so high, it is outrageous that so much is left to go to waste.

The charity said that the Government should incentivise farmers to pick, package and transport their produce to make it available. A £25 million annual government subsidy would facilitate a “surplus with purpose” scheme that would enable the delivery of an additional 42,500 tons of surplus food, the equivalent of 100 million extra meals.

The idea has popular support. Almost 80 per cent of the electorate believe that surplus food should be donated to people and that the Government should help. FareShare says there are 127 MPs on both sides of the Commons who support the idea of Government funding for a surplus with purpose scheme.

FareShare argues this could be funded by Government deploying some of the £880 million earmarked for social and environmental initiatives from the recently expanded Dormant Assets Bill. Or it could divert just 3.3 per cent of the huge £750 million subsidy the Government give to the anaerobic digestion industry every year.

Digestion plants operate by pulverising waste food into sludge and passing it through a giant sealed tank (anaerobic means “without oxygen”) to create two products: biogas that is sold to energy networks and digestate that farmers use as fertiliser.

But 64,500 tons of the food processed by anaerobic digestion plants is perfectly good surplus food that, according to the government-funded charity, Waste and Resources Action Programme, “could and should” be used to feed the hungry. This equates to more than 150 million meals. The dramatic near four-fold rise in anaerobic digestion subsidies, from £200 million seven years ago, has led to a sharp increase in digestion plants, with around 140 built in the last six years, taking the total to 727.

The Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association has admitted that the rising number of plants built in response to the lucrative subsidies has increased competition among operators to obtain food waste — so much so that it has led to them paying food producers and outlets to take away their surplus. Charlotte Morton, chief executive of ADBA, estimated two years ago that “15 per cent of anaerobic digestion food waste deals involve the operator paying to take away the waste”.

Today Ms Morton agreed this was not the right outcome and added: “We have always been a supporter of the Food and Drink Hierarchy [which stipulates that edible surplus food should go first for human consumption] and has made it clear that edible food should not end up in a digester. But we must emphasise that anaerobic digestion is not where most edible food is wasted. We estimate 86 per cent of wasted food is thrown in landfill and incineration. This is a regulatory failure.”

Morton added: “We are calling on the Government to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry and redirect this financial support towards implementation of the Food & Drink Hierarchy, supporting the redistribution of edible food and making separate food waste collections mandatory urgently.

“Anaerobic digestion subsidies are not the issue. Government inaction in preventing food waste is.” George Wright, CEO of FareShare, said: “The Government could spend a tiny fraction of the £750 million a year it spends on anaerobic digestion subsidies to get good food to people.

“If I told you there was a scheme which reduced food waste and carbon emissions while producing significant quantities of healthy food for redistribution, and where every £1 invested created £6 of economic value, you’d think the Government would jump at it.”

The Government piloted such a scheme in 2018-19 when they gave FareShare £1.9 million to part-fund a trial that resulted in the delivery of over 4,400 tons of surplus food.

Almost 40 per cent of it was farm produce that would otherwise have gone to waste. That pilot was approved by Michael Gove, then secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but despite its success and the project aligning with the Government’s food waste hierarchy, Mr Gove’s successors at Defra have declined requests for further funding.

Defra said: “There are no plans to extend grant funding. This [2.9 million ton] figure is reflective of farming food waste as a whole and does not take into account that food such as barley, wheat, sugar beet and rape are not ready for consumption. We have already invested nearly £13 million across 250 organisations [between 2018 and 2020] so the redistribution sector could develop solutions to reduce food waste, with FareShare receiving around £3 million.”

FareShare’s CEO responded: “ The fact that there is no funding for surplus redistribution, but £750 million for anaerobic digestion, is an outrage. The subsidy regime means there is a greater incentive to send edible food to digestion. That has to stop. Anaerobic digestion is a good destination for waste food — just not for food that could be eaten.”

FareShare and its partners in the food redistribution sector will press the public accounts committee to ask Defra: if you support the food waste hierarchy, why does the Government give the anaerobic digestion sector £750 million subsidies a year while giving the food redistribution sector nothing?