Field of Enquiry IV: Waste not, want not

A new year starting with the disturbing story of waste. Miesbeth Knottenbelt, Nourish member & volunteer, reports on the fourth session of the 2000m2 Field of Enquiry series at Whitmuir The Organic Place, on Saturday the 14th of January.


The big themes

  1. the simplicity of the theme: the magnitude of the problem, yet the universal agreement that it is to everybody’s advantage to do something about it. Clearly, not only could food waste be eaten, it also itself has huge environmental impact (e.g. it is associated with 4% of Scotland’s water footprint); and economic impact on individuals (e.g. each Scottish household wastes on average £460/year).
  2. yet by contrast, the complexities around taking actions that make a difference. However, on the positive side, a lot of the afternoon was spent discussing actions, policies/targets and models that look promising, and I was struck by the recency of this story.


The facts

Some background: 1/3 of the world’s food is wasted, which adds up to ‘somewhere between 1.3 and 2 billion tons’. This huge margin shows the first problem around ‘facts’ and recording processes (and thereby, around getting a grip on the problem): even in similar countries (England/Scotland), definitions differ so much that data cannot be compared. Additionally, waste in the developing world is a very different problem (largely about storage, production and environment over which there is little control). In the developed world it is often directly or indirectly about consumption (an estimated 2/3 is avoidable). It follows that models are not transferable even if data were more accurate and comparable.

An example of how problematic Scottish data is: ‘pre-farm-gate’ is not included in current data (e.g. less than ‘perfect’ fruit and veg, other unsold produce) nor is liquid commercial and industrial waste. As monitoring and recording methods develop, the baseline figures change: targets are fluid.


Who is to blame?

We are told the breakdown is: manufacturers =37%, vs retailers =2% vs households =45%. Are retailers shifting the problem on to individuals (e.g. deals on produce that is about to go off, unmanageably large portions, ‘all you can eat’ restaurants)? EU Regulations also get in the way: pigs (omnivores) thrive on food waste but the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 led to the introduction of new 2002 regulations that stipulate that no kitchen or meat waste can be fed to animals. In Japan and Thailand, 40% of food waste is fed to animals. It is sorted and tested, and the balance adjusted for different animals’ diets (e.g. noodle waste to vegetarians). In the UK, we import grains, soya, palm- and fish oil to feed animals at huge expense and environmental impact.



There current Scottish target is to reduce food and drink waste by 33% by 2025. The good news is that there has been collaborative action from large retailers who can see economic advantage (everybody wins): it is astonishing how simple these ‘solutions’ seem and incredible really, why no thought had gone into this before now: better packaging and storage (like self-seal strips), labelling (‘use by’, ‘sell by’, ‘best before’: are you confused?); selling smaller portions. There is now also better legislation. Companies from whom more than 5Kg is collected, separate out waste. Waste is measured and reported. There is also more auditing, advice and support for developing better practice. A sticky issue is the increasingly common practice of redistributing ‘surplus food’ to charitable initiatives supporting people who are experiencing food insecurity. The Food Research Collaboration has just brought out an excellent analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of this practice, highlighting how it undermines calls for direct actions to both reduce the production of surplus food and to address upstream drivers of food insecurity and ensure the right to food.

If there was any doubt, there are no quick fixes around household waste especially. Seven million chickens are binned in Scotland each year and only 3% experience shame when they throw food out. There is a lot of work to be done on reversing the trend that animals produced for meat are not regarded as sentient beings. Educating people, motivating change of attitudes and behaviours, enabling simple changes, working with different age groups: ALL of this needs to be done together in a multi-pronged approach.

We heard about a great Whitmuir project with neighbouring schools. One of the key things is for kids to collect their own waste, making the scale of the problem visible and real. We are told that for an approach to work, it needs to consider actions not only from an individual’s perspective (I), but also take into account the social (S) and material (M) contexts in which they are held; and that there will be a range of actions to be taken in all these spheres for any strategy to work effectively. We knew the business of social change is complex. We need to trust that an ISM model will help… slowly, gradually, eventually!


Field of Enquiry series

You can access the presentations and resources of the Field of Enquiry series in this Dropbox folder. You can read blogs about the previous sessions on land use here, on biodiversity here and bread here. If you have questions about the series, you can e-mail Heather Anderson at heather @