When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gets on the campaign trail, the whole food supply chain – from farmer to supermarket – tends to get nervous. The man’s credible profile, coupled with his unerring knack of getting right to the nub of the problem, means that he is one of the most powerful influencers on public opinion, and not always to the benefit of agriculture, food producers, retailers and restaurants.
At first glance, his latest crusade against the amount of food we waste as a nation is difficult to argue with. In a world of scarce resources, it simply cannot be right that we in Britain throw away a staggering 7.2 million tonnes of food every year – enough to fill Wembley Stadium to the brim, or 90kg for every man, woman and child in the country.
Unusually for an Hugh F-W diatribe, the spotlight is not so much on producers this time, but rather on the consumer end of things. He is having a go at the amount of waste supermarkets generate, but also at the amount of food we all buy and then don’t eat.
Part of the problem, of course, lies in the fact that the Great British public has got used to the idea of unrealistically cheap food. So they don’t value it as a commodity, and for many (although not all), wasting 30 per cent of what they buy is not something that has too much of a financial impact.
There are those who argue that all this waste is great news for producers. If consumers are buying far more than they actually eat, then the market for farmers and producers must be artificially inflated – which is good news, right? And if we eliminated all that waste, then demand for food would drop by a quarter overnight.
To be fair, Hugh F-W has not gone down the route of accusing the industry of cashing in on our retailers’ and consumers’ cavalier attitude to throwing away food. But that could still happen, and the food production chain needs to have a compelling answer to that accusation.
The solution lies in substituting quality for quantity. If we can educate consumers to reduce the amount they waste, then why can we not educate them to re-invest the money they would save in buying better food?
If you are going to buy less (because you will no longer be throwing the best part of a third of it away), then you can trade up, allowing producers better margins, making higher welfare standards affordable, and –I recognise that I may be being naive here – giving supermarkets the chance to pay farmers more than the cost of production for their produce.
As the economy recovers, the number of people who are struggling to put food on the table is thankfully dwindling (although we should recognise that they are still out there). For everybody else, the ‘War on Waste’ should be seen as a way of valuing food much more.
If we can build that sense of worth, that food is too important to be thrown away, perhaps we can at the same time build a sense that consumers need to pay a more realistic price for what they eat - without necessarily increasing the overall amount they spend.
Once we start instilling this mindset, the opportunity will exist to build on it, doing away with the race to the cheapest, and encouraging a much greater consumer engagement with the food they buy, the farmers who grow it, and the producers who make it.
What Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has demonstrated is how little most people value what they eat. His campaign represents a huge opportunity for the food supply chain to change that. So we should embrace Hugh’s campaign; this is too good an opportunity to waste.
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