If there was ever a time for the nation to take a long hard look at itself and its collective shopping habits it is probably now. With the cost of food soaring on Irish supermarket shelves, the notion that we would continue to waste it at the unconscionable levels we have been wasting it for at least a generation seems as foolish as it does mindless.
By binning food worth about €60 each month, according to a recent assessment published by Goodbody analysts, not only are Irish households wasting money most of us can ill-afford, but we are also contributing to the global climate crisis that is posing an existential threat to every single one of us.
“Most people think of changing their cars rather than changing how they waste our food,” says the author of the report Jason Molins.
People throw away food for all sorts of reasons. It gets binned because people buy more than they need, or because they buy food that withers and rots before they get a chance to eat it, or because they buy food that they think they might eat but know in their heart and soul they probably won’t — we’re looking at you bagged salad leaves.
Sometimes food is wasted because we have lost the run of our fridges and have no idea what is in it at any given moment, and then sometimes it goes in the bin for the simple reason that too much of it is put on our plates.
Whatever the reasons, it is a big problem — both financial and environmental. Globally, food waste is responsible for about 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and as much as one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted every year with households the biggest culprits, accounting for 70 per cent of it in the developed world.
And all the while close to one billion people in the developing world — and sometimes closer to home — can’t afford to buy food at all.
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According to the Goodbody report published earlier this summer, Irish homes waste about 55kg of food every year.
Molins says we might be on the cusp of a change with the spike in inflation potentially leading to shoppers paying more attention to spending and looking more closely at the food they waste.
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While his report is full of bleak findings, Molins is not entirely without hope and he says we have already proved we can do better if we put our minds to it. He highlights the Covid lockdowns which saw Irish people forced to stay at home. “It was down to better planning. We all knew on a Monday when we did the weekly shop that we’d be at home for the rest of the week so meal planning, meal structuring and making use of that was as good as it could ever be.”
The world has opened up again, which is — obviously — to be welcomed, but less welcome is the news that the level of waste has climbed to where it was in pre-Covid times.
Molins highlights two distinct strands to the food waste problem and says there is “a misunderstanding” as to the impact food waste has on the planet.
“People think of driving cars, flying planes and how we can reduce our energy intensity, but actually food production is one of the largest contributors.” He says it is “frightening” how much emissions are produced in the production of the food we waste. “Globally about a third of food that’s produced is wasted. That’s 1.3 billion tons of food and that’s costing the global economy about a trillion dollars a year.”
Households typically account for 70 per cent of food waste, with farming, manufacturing, retail and the hospitality and food services sectors making up the rest.
He says companies, retailers and food producers have been doing more to reduce food waste and points to a significant shift in how best before dates are being used.
In recent times, some of Ireland’s retailers have taken big steps to remove the best before dates on some food products in order to reduce food waste generated by shoppers.
This summer Marks & Spencer began phasing out best before dates on hundreds of fruit and vegetable ranges while SuperValu has also removed references to dates from certain own-brand fruit and vegetable products.
A significant portion of the food waste generate in Ireland is made up of fresh produce that has passed its best before date. Many consumers throw food out simply because it has passed its best before date even though it remains perfectly edible.
Extrapolating from figures released by the UK Waste Resources Action Programme, the simple step of removing best before dates of fresh fruit and vegetables could stop as many as 700,000 baskets of food ending up in landfills in Ireland each year with the measure being better for the environment and for shoppers’ wallets.
“The issue of best before dates is not about food safety,” says Dr Mairead McCann of Safefood. She says such dates are “only a guideline indicating when to use the product to ensure that its quality is of the highest standard”.
She adds that when it comes to uncut and unprocessed fruit and vegetables, once the food hasn’t started to rot “a consumer can use their own discretion in determining whether the food is of good enough quality to eat”.
She stressed that best before dates should not be confused with use by dates, which are used on perishable foods. “These foods need to be stored safely by following the instructions on their labels and must be eaten within the use by date. The use by date is about the safety of the food and is a deadline,” Dr McCann said.
“We’re determined to tackle food waste,” a spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer said, pointing to the removal of best before dates, “where safe to do so, trialling new ways to sell our products and galvanising our customers to get creative with leftovers and embrace change”.
A SuperValu spokeswoman said waste reduction was “an important element of [its] sustainability agenda” and said it had already extended the shelf life of 20 per cent of its fruit and vegetable products as well as removing dates from certain own-brand fruit and vegetables”.
Lidl has also taken significant steps to remove best before dates, with the majority of its ranges sold without any references to dates, “apart from a small selection of items which are required to by law as they have been washed and prepared by the supplier”.
There is also work being done, Molins says, by food producing companies to extend the shelf life of food through investment in better food preservation. “That’s a key component and more can be done on education. There’s an education deficit, linked back to food consumption and how we can maybe change our patterns,” Molins says.
“Loose apples, broccoli, potatoes, kept in the right environment, which is ideally the fridge and the fridge being kept at the right temperature, can more than triple, sometimes quadruple the shelf life,” he continues.
He also suggests online ordering and rapid delivery will form part of the solution. In the UK rapid delivery in urban centres is picking up speed and it will inevitably come here too. If someone can order the food they need for dinner and have it delivered to their home in 30 minutes then it will radically shake up the sector and remove the need to buy food in advance.
It will change the way we shop, for sure, but if it also changes the way we waste then it will be very welcome indeed.