How do Tesco's food waste figures compare internationally?

Tesco wastes 30,000 tonnes of food in six months, but how does the UK compare with other countries on food waste?

New Statesman
Food waste is costing families ₤700 a year. Photo:Getty.

The number of people using food banks in the UK has tripled in the past year, and household budgets are shrinking as wages struggle to keep up with inflation, and yet in the last six months Tesco’s stores and distribution centres contributed 30,000 tonnes of food waste. New figures revealed by the supermarket show that 68 per cent of pre-packed salad is wasted (35 per cent of which is wasted in the home), as are a fifth of bananas, and 40 per cent of all apples bought. Food waste is costing families around ₤700 a year, the study argued.

According to government figures, food waste costs the UK economy ₤12bn a year, while a report released by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has found that around 30 per cent of the food produced in the UK doesn’t reach supermarkets, mainly for cosmetic reasons  - which isn’t covered by Tesco’s figures. Once we purchase food, consumers throw between 30-50 per cent of their food away.

All of this means the UK is high on the list of the worst-offenders on food waste, but even in less wealthy countries, food waste is shockingly high. A study by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) released earlier this year estimated that globally, around 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted. Per capita, between 280-300kg of food is wasted every year in Europe and North Africa, while around 150kg of food is wasted per capita in Sub Saharan Africa every year (although only 6kg of this is wasted by consumers.)

This isn’t just senseless in a world where 842 million people go hungry, according to the World Food Programme, it is also contributing to climate change. Food wastage is the third largest carbon emitter globally, after the US and China, and the amount of water wasted annually is the equivalent of three times lake Geneva.

In poorer countries, a greater proportion of food is wasted downstream in the supply chain, because of inefficiencies in getting food to markets and storing food, while in wealthier countries like the UK a greater proportion of food is wasted by consumers.

There is a small upshot to these fairly damning statistics – if food waste can be tackled effectively, this means that many of the world’s hungry can be fed without further land clearances or more intensive agriculture. The FAO have said that even if we are only able to reduce ¼ of global food waste, this will be enough to feed the world’s hungry. 

In low-income countries, more work needs to be done to improve farmer’s access to markets, and to increase producers’ and consumers’ abilities to preserve food. In high-income countries, like the UK, WRAP recommends that supermarkets offer a range of pack sizes, as well as clear use-by dates and guidance on freezing and storing food. Consumers, similarly, need to learn to embrace leftovers, and plan their food consumption better to avoid uneaten vegetables and fresh meat perishing at the back of the fridge – we’ll feel financially better for it. And we should probably just give those bags of salad a miss.