Are food banks a curse on sustainability?

The fate of lost food has suddenly become a hot topic around the world. Politicians are waking up to the fact that so much food is being thrown away, which could help literally millions of people in need. In many countries, legislation has been introduced, often in the form of tax rebates to incentivise people and companies to give surplus (lost) food to food banks.

France is certainly a world leader in this regard. However, this month the British environment secretary, Michael Gove, added Britain to the growing list of countries who are taking action. In the autumn budget, he announced plans that will see £15mil (RM81mil) ploughed into the economy to reduce food waste and redistribute more meals.

This is a very big cultural step for the British government. Unlike many of their European counterparts, they have resisted linking food waste to any taxation initiative. However, as Lindsay Boswell, the CEO of Fareshare, one of the largest food banks in Britain points out, the country has over 2,000 food banks, yet only 6% of surplus food is rescued. This means 94% of food is currently wasted.

This announcement has received a great deal of positive media coverage, however, there are many influential people in the sustainability world that are against the idea of lost food being redistributed.

It is not because they are sadistic and want people to go hungry. They would argue that using food in this way allows the public to be sympathetic to overproduction that is an inevitable by-product of the food industry. They claim this may exacerbate an already difficult problem.

The believe the environmental damage caused by the continuously high ratio of food waste (33%) is a more serious long-term problem (than under nourished individuals) and addressing this issue has to be the top priority.

There is a moral duty to feed others if we are in a position to do so. The use of food banks will not directly cause an increase in overproduction, which will damage sustainability efforts. On the contrary, by rescuing food, we are utilising important sources of carbon and other elements, which will prevent the build-up and release of CO2, methane and other gases which is a consequence of unused food being left to rot in landfill.

It is easy to understand some of those concerns. However, like a younger sibling, food waste is now following the path of single-use plastic. That is, it is now on the global agenda and over the next 10 to 20 years, our behaviour will change dramatically. Our children will look back on our bad habits in amazement (perhaps in the same way our grandparents might raise an eyebrow or two about the way we discard food).

It is very hard for individual companies to change production processes, particularly in a competitive environment. However, if a general consensus begins to emerge (led by governments and supported by the public) the corporate world does have the capacity to act fast and make a big impact.

Predicting the future and carving up best practice is never easy. The key would be for society to reward low levels of waste. A CEO from one of the major multinational companies in Malaysia admitted sales targets have been a top priority – this often comes at the expense of sustainability. It is very important to produce enough product, so you never have to decline a sale. Having low levels of waste will not win you any awards. If this attitude can be changed, perhaps we can really start to tackle and reduce the 33% level of food waste we are currently disposing.


– Love Food Hate Waste / Star2

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