Bog off, DEFRA

The Times tells us that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is demanding that food retailers agree to tough targets on reducing food waste, or else face legislation.

 

One of the things DEFRA wants to see happen is an end to “bogofs” – buy-one, get-one-free deals which allegedly cause people to buy too much food, which then goes to waste as the extra portions moulder uneaten in the nation’s fridges. The Times front page says that a third of all food is wasted: this mysteriously becomes half in their columnist Melanie Reid’s Notebook.

 

I found these figures difficult to believe, so I accessed the report on which they are based (The food we waste, published last year by WRAP, a quango devoted to cutting waste).

 

The headline figures are indeed exaggerated. This fascinating and meticulously researched report makes careful, if sometimes debatable, decisions on how to classify food waste. Some waste is clearly unavoidable – chicken bones, banana skins, coffee grounds. If we focus on more obviously avoidable waste – unopened yoghurts, discarded apples and so on – the proportion of food which is wasted is much lower – by my calculation about 19% by weight of all food purchased. Even this may be an exaggeration, as around half of this is classified by consumers as inedible or “left on the plate” – this latter will include gristle, burnt toast and so on.

 

We ought to try harder, no doubt, to eat up our dinners – but why does this mean the threat of yet more regulation? DEFRA believes bogofs encourage small households to buy too much when they should buy smaller amounts more suited to their appetites. Well, possibly, if you believe (as so many policy wonks do), that people can’t make sensible choices. However the most “wasteful” households appear to be those with two adults and two children, suggesting other factors, such as kids’ choosy eating, may be to blame rather than those wicked old supermarkets.

 

Food waste is an ambiguous area. Trends which the wonks dislike may have an upbeat side – they can be testimony to improved diet. Forty years ago, we ate tinned soup, tinned fish, tinned steak and kidney pies, tinned peas, and finished off with tinned pineapple chunks or some such. There is little waste from tinned food: fresh fish, vegetables and fruit inevitably generate more. But is that bad? Our diets are better for us nowadays, and certainly less bland and monotonous. And, for heaven’s sake, if we’re leaving stuff on the plate we’re at least not contributing to the obesity epidemic which the supermarkets are also castigated for causing.

 

Waste management is a serious issue and so is our diet, but DEFRA’s latest threats look like a silly season attempt to generate headlines by picking on the supermarkets once again. I’m with the British Retail Consortium, who say that retailers know their customers better and should be allowed to decide what’s the best policy on special offers. This kind of attempted micro-management discredits government policy-making.

The irony of all this (and of many of the articles of the so-called food policy experts in response to the food security report) is that it all provides arguments for no government intervention. If we are producing only (say) half of our food (another issue that was discussed in relation to food security) and also wasting a third of it then it suggests that there is much slack in the system that will begin to be tightened as prices rise due to world population growth. I would much rather enter a period of greater scarcity in a situation where I was wasting lots of food I buy than if every acre was under cultivation and every scrap eaten. Prices will change and behaviour will respond.

I see a pathway leading to state run Food Halls where we conusmers no longer buy the food we want but instead have ration tickets that we present at the Hall each day to have our allotted meal. And you can forget about choice. The Bureaucrats organising this will quickly decide there are economies of scale to be garnered by having set menus for each day of the week. Hence it will be Beef and Sprouts on Mondays, Chicken and Sprouts on Tuesdays and Pork with extra Sprouts on a Wednesdays. What do you mean you don’t like sprouts? It would be positively wasteful for you not to have sprouts that have been carefully prepared for you by your local state run food hall …

Philip, …as is happening to sugar right now…Len, One of the problems is our artificial distinction between “waste” and “product”. Food “waste” can be an excellent input into energy production, and the “waste” from that product can be an excellent replacement for petro-chemical fertilizers. And do WRAP imagine that they will eliminate food waste if they stop it being thrown out of the fridge? The amount of food produced will be determined by historical and projected prices at the time of planting/insemination, weather, disease, etc. If supermarkets don’t persuade people to take it, it will be thrown away at the supermarket, distribution center, factory, or farm.

When I mentioned to someone the other day my theory that it was a good idea to have plenty of ‘waste’ in your household spending, so that you could more easily tighten your belt when hard times arrived, he mentioned a technical phrase ‘organisational slack’. How lucky we are, given the state of the public finances, to have such a ’slack’ government!

The reason there is waste is because we are affluent and so we are able to be relatively frivolous or ’slack’. However, this is precisely what government seeks to achieve: economic growth and a reasonable standard of living for all citizens. The problem that government and environmentalists have is explaining to us why we should make ourselves materially worse off for an as yet unquantifiable future benefit. However, perhaps Gordon Brown might soon be claiming that the recession, by making us all poorer, is actually a means of reducing carbon emissions and cutting down on waste.

You’ve got a typo — “discredits” in the last sentence was clearly meant to be “typifies”.

We urgently need to tackle clothes waste, book waste and CD waste as well. It’s harder to uncover because people don’t usually throw these things away if they don’t use them, but leave them to whither in the shelves. So maybe we should have an anti-waste STASI.

The irony of all this (and of many of the articles of the so-called food policy experts in response to the food security report) is that it all provides arguments for no government intervention. If we are producing only (say) half of our food (another issue that was discussed in relation to food security) and also wasting a third of it then it suggests that there is much slack in the system that will begin to be tightened as prices rise due to world population growth. I would much rather enter a period of greater scarcity in a situation where I was wasting lots of food I buy than if every acre was under cultivation and every scrap eaten. Prices will change and behaviour will respond.

I see a pathway leading to state run Food Halls where we conusmers no longer buy the food we want but instead have ration tickets that we present at the Hall each day to have our allotted meal. And you can forget about choice. The Bureaucrats organising this will quickly decide there are economies of scale to be garnered by having set menus for each day of the week. Hence it will be Beef and Sprouts on Mondays, Chicken and Sprouts on Tuesdays and Pork with extra Sprouts on a Wednesdays. What do you mean you don’t like sprouts? It would be positively wasteful for you not to have sprouts that have been carefully prepared for you by your local state run food hall …

Philip, …as is happening to sugar right now…Len, One of the problems is our artificial distinction between “waste” and “product”. Food “waste” can be an excellent input into energy production, and the “waste” from that product can be an excellent replacement for petro-chemical fertilizers. And do WRAP imagine that they will eliminate food waste if they stop it being thrown out of the fridge? The amount of food produced will be determined by historical and projected prices at the time of planting/insemination, weather, disease, etc. If supermarkets don’t persuade people to take it, it will be thrown away at the supermarket, distribution center, factory, or farm.

When I mentioned to someone the other day my theory that it was a good idea to have plenty of ‘waste’ in your household spending, so that you could more easily tighten your belt when hard times arrived, he mentioned a technical phrase ‘organisational slack’. How lucky we are, given the state of the public finances, to have such a ’slack’ government!

The reason there is waste is because we are affluent and so we are able to be relatively frivolous or ’slack’. However, this is precisely what government seeks to achieve: economic growth and a reasonable standard of living for all citizens. The problem that government and environmentalists have is explaining to us why we should make ourselves materially worse off for an as yet unquantifiable future benefit. However, perhaps Gordon Brown might soon be claiming that the recession, by making us all poorer, is actually a means of reducing carbon emissions and cutting down on waste.

You’ve got a typo — “discredits” in the last sentence was clearly meant to be “typifies”.

We urgently need to tackle clothes waste, book waste and CD waste as well. It’s harder to uncover because people don’t usually throw these things away if they don’t use them, but leave them to whither in the shelves. So maybe we should have an anti-waste STASI.

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