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A clear plate means a clear conscience

Food is a profoundly political issue. In the not too distant past, the lack of food was a pressing concern for social justice campaigners. Indeed the rationing of food was a central issue during the 1951 election in which the...


Food is a profoundly political issue. In the not too distant past, the lack of food was a pressing concern for social justice campaigners. Indeed the rationing of food was a central issue during the 1951 election in which the Conservative party promised to usher in a new era of abundance. Nowadays it is an excess of, as well as the low quality of food which provide political challenges.

A peculiar feature of the food policy debate in the UK today is the problem of food waste. Household food waste in particular continues to mystify. Despite a squeeze in living standards that has accompanied the economic slump of the last few years, household food waste remains a source of alarming statistics. £480 worth of perfectly good edible food is thrown out by the average household each year. The figure rises to £700 for households with children. The collective climate change impact of household food waste is the equivalent of one in five cars on the road in the country.

We can choose to ignore food waste as a political issue. We can take the view that people should be free to do what they wish with their food. But this view is misplaced for a number of reasons. Firstly, to waste food is to undermine the purpose and value of food. It is there to be eaten, to provide sustenance as well as to bring pleasure through its quality and/or as an outlet for cultural expression. Secondly, food is the product of hard labour and depends on the use of resources such as land and water. These are resources that are precious and in greater demand than ever both domestically and abroad. Most importantly, our food system has outcomes that impact everybody. Whether it is the carbon emissions associated with food waste or the increased cost to the NHS due to unhealthy food, the features and structures of our food system are anything but an individual concern.

An understanding of food policy as a collective concern demands that food waste is a problem that should be solved. Our research, presented here for the first time explores in detail the issue of public attitudes to food waste. The new work, which is based on a nationally representative survey carried out in August 2012[i], helps to shed light on how we can meet the challenge of food waste by exploring the political space available for designing public policy interventions.

This article sets out to answer some questions pertinent to the debate around food waste. Are we a nation of callous food wasters? Does using different information to communicate the problem trigger more support for initiatives to address food waste?  Who do we trust to deliver information about reducing food waste? What kind of barriers do people list for reducing food waste levels? What policy solutions are popular and what motivates people to reduce their food waste? Finally, is food waste a problem we solve on our own as individual consumers or we do tackle it collectively?

Our research shows that we are not a nation of callous wasters. The results of the survey show that 60 per cent of people think that food waste is a problem that should be solved. Furthermore, it is a problem that legitimises intervention by both government and businesses. As shown in figure one below, when people were presented with information about the climate change impact of food waste, this figure rose to around 70 per cent. This was 5 per cent higher than the survey in which another group were given only information about the monetary value of food waste. This affirms a finding in our previous qualitative work that the environment can be a bigger motivator of attitudes towards food waste[ii]. This research provides evidence that if we are wasters then we are certainly concerned about it

So we think that government and business action is justified to solve the problem of food waste, but do we trust them? Our research shows that people do not particularly trust government or business to provide information about reducing levels of food waste. So what sources of information do we trust? Overwhelmingly, and perhaps obviously, the most trusted sources of information are our friends and family. Interestingly, the other sources that enjoy a high net level of trust (more people trusting than distrusting) are campaigning groups and information on product packaging. This data, seen in figure two below, gives a strong indication of what sources of information a successful communications campaigns about food waste would utilise: peer-to-peer information giving facilitated by campaigning groups as well as information on product packaging.

So if the vast majority of people think that food waste is a problem that should be solved, why does the problem persist? Much accepted wisdom informs us that the barriers people face in attempts to reduce their food waste include: busy lifestyles, a lack of skills and an ability to plan in the kitchen. Our research, however, shows that the barriers people actually describe include: food going off too quickly, throwing away leftovers and cooking too much food in the first place. This is illustrated in figure three below.

Beneath the top line findings of the research, there are some interesting differences in responses that shed some light on the complex variation of food waste attitudes as well as behaviours around the UK. One of our questions looked at what people currently did with their food waste. On average, around half of people still put food waste in their main rubbish collection. When breaking down the responses by region, big differences emerge. As displayed in figure four, almost 70 per cent of people in Scotland put food in their main rubbish collection. This was around 30 per cent higher than people in London or the rest of Southern England. Whilst food waste collections are available in most parts of the UK, the variation in visibility and take up is clearly very high. The results of this survey illustrate the amount of work needed to be done in increasing use of food waste collections.

The survey data also shows differences between how men and women throw away their food. Though not as dramatic as the regional differences, men come out slightly better in terms of avoiding food waste going in their main rubbish collection. Men also show marginally higher rates of composting. This is shown in figure five. Why is it that men are slightly ahead in terms of food waste disposal? It may be that women are often left with too high a share of the childcare and household responsibilities, squeezing the time and energy that can be devoted to disposing of food waste in special collections or composting.

Age also emerges as an important factor. When asked to list the main barriers to reducing food waste, those above 40 were far more insistent that there are no such barriers. This may reflect a belief on the part of the older people in our survey that they themselves do not waste significant amounts of food.

Younger people in our survey were also more likely to state that food going off too quickly was one of the main barriers to reducing their food waste (figure seven). There may be a number of explanation for this. People above 40 years of age will be more experienced at managing households, planning meals and making use of the food they have bought. Those about 40 may also have a higher tolerance for food that is not quite as fresh, perhaps prefering to use their common sense as opposed to the date on the label.

Regional differences also emerge in the factors listed as main barriers to reducing food waste. Whilst people in all regions listed the same four main barriers, as figure eight demonstrates, there are some interesting variations in the strength of the results. Londoners and people in Scotland identify throwing away leftovers as a greater barrier than people in the rest of the country. More people in Scotland also list cooking too much food as a main barrier compared to people in the rest of the country.

The fine grained detail shown by our survey results reveals a rich tapestry of attitudes and experiences that vary according to age, gender and region. Recent research from sociologist David Evans at Manchester University demonstrates that, through a long period of close observation of families that the logistics of shopping, routines of families eating together, the desire to eat healthier (more perishable) food and the force of spontaneity all contribute to people wasting more food than they would like to.[iii] There are important practical considerations too for many people that make issues of skill and lifestyle somewhat redundant: not having much storage space for food, not possessing a big enough freezer (or not having one in the first place) as well as living far from anywhere to buy food conveniently making people reliant on occasional large shopping trips. The different attitudes and barriers identified by the people in our survey mean that if we are concerned with reducing food waste (especially before it arises), we may have to be particularly creative with our policy prescriptions.

What policy solutions were popular with people? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the solutions that were most popular in our survey involved little action from people. The things that were popular were one that government or business can do largely independent of any change in people’s behaviour. Furthermore, the solutions that were popular were the ones that were more focused on lowering the impact of food waste rather than the occurrence of food waste in the first place. The research shows that whilst we think that government and business are justified in attempts to solve the problem of food waste, we want them to focus on reducing the impact and we don’t want to have too much to do with it. When we asked people what they thought would motivate them to waste less food in the first place it was clear: saving them money or making it easier to reduce their food waste.

There was, however, one interesting finding which showed that how we communicate about food waste affects how much trouble people are willing to go to in order to address the problem. The group of people who were given information about the environmental impact of food waste saw a 7 per cent rise in those willing to support the idea of universal food waste collections in the UK. This illustrates the importance of building support for policy initiatives by constructing a coherent narrative, drawing upon the reasons for acting in the first place.

Our research is good news for the food waste bill. Many of the measures contained in this unsuccessful bill proved popular. Of particular popularity was the idea that food waste be fed to livestock where appropriate. Whilst this and many such measures address food waste after the event, there is a strong argument that by doing more to lower the impact collectively (i.e. through the political process). This will raise awareness of the need to stop food waste arising in the first place. If not, we have to tackle the question of how concerned we are with reducing food waste as opposed to lowering it’s impact. This can be done by asking ourselves: if we somehow eliminate all the impacts of food waste, are we still concerned about it being thrown away in the first place? It would be very likely that the majority of people would still think so.

There is something about food waste that intuitively troubles us. It may be because of the resources and labour that go into food production. It may be because it undermines the purpose and potential of food for pleasure and for exchanging cultural commemoration. It could also be because it presents an intriguing paradox of human behaviour. Food prices have been rising steadily throughout the globe. In some parts of the world there are extreme episodes of hunger affecting large groups of people. Despite this, waste persists both at the level of the household and throughout our complex food system.

This paradoxical policy area illustrates that there is some deep thinking to be done about our food system both in this country and around the world. It should be remembered that the features and functioning of our system are but a consequence of political choices. Whilst so much of the food waste and food policy debate tends to fixate on the role of the individual, it is ultimately a problem which we must strive to solve collectively.

Wartime posters in the UK proclaimed that a clear plate meant a clear conscience. We must revisit some of the wisdom of our past.

[i] The survey was carried out by YouGov online between 15th-17th August 2012. The total sample size was 2800 UK adults. The sample was split into 4 groups. Group one was given no prior information before answering the questions. This group consisted of 1304 people. The three further groups were given different information about food waste before answering the questions. This information is detailed in figure one which represents a comparison between people in these different survey groups. Figures two, three and nine represent top line findings and are based on an average of answers of all four groups. Figures four through to eight represent comparisons according to age, gender and region within group one meaning a total sample size of 1304 people for those particular figures.

[ii] Our previous qualitative research was analysed and published in May 2012 in the report waste not, want not which is available online at the Fabian Society website

[iii] David Evans, Beyond the throwaway society: ordinary domestic practice and a sociology of household food waste, 2012

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