A new food industry coalition aims to reduce meat waste and achieve net zero emissions. But a lack of foodservice representation and no focus on consumption risk diminishing its impact, says Nick Hughes.
It was while working as a waiter at the Queen’s Club tennis championships in the mid-noughties that I had my formative experience of food waste. Guests who had paid eye-watering sums to wine and dine friends and associates in the corporate hospitality suites were rewarded with limitless supplies of food and drink throughout the day. Limitless choice meant limitless waste – from salads and strawberries to sauvignon blanc. But it was the chicken that really stuck in my craw – whole birds prepped, roasted and then tossed away when it became clear that bellies were full and rooms were emptying. A life, and all the resources needed to sustain it, wasted in the blink of an eye.
Thankfully, attitudes to food waste have transformed in the intervening years but meat waste remains at unsustainable levels. WRAP estimates that around 380,000 tonnes each year of the meat intended for consumption is never eaten, worth £3 bn and with associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of more than 4 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents. Much of this meat is discarded after purchase at home, but large volumes are still wasted at different points in the supply chain.
It is this supply chain waste that a new WRAP-facilitated industry initiative plans to address. “Meat in a net zero world” is the boldly titled vision for the UK meat industry to become a “world-leading model for sustainable production and supply” by improving efficiency and productivity, minimising waste, protecting natural assets and reducing global warming.
It has attracted a long and broad list of signatories including the UK’s 10 leading grocery retailers and meat companies representing 80% of processing volume. Yet a lack of foodservice representation and a blind spot where reducing meat consumption is concerned raises questions over how impactful the initiative can really be.
The report that accompanied the launch sets out a series of actions signatories will take to improve meat sector sustainability. These range from helping to halve the amount of meat that goes to waste each year in the UK to sourcing soya for use in feed in a way that protects against conversion of forests and valuable native vegetation.
Businesses have also committed to reduce their own operational food waste, GHG emissions and water impacts, while working across the supply chain to deliver productivity improvements, GHG emissions reductions and protection of natural assets like soil and water during livestock and poultry rearing.
The idea is that commitments will contribute towards existing national-level targets including the Coutauld commitment 2025 targets to reduce food waste and GHG emissions by 20% between 2015 and 2025; UN sustainable development goal 12.3 to halve per capita food waste by 2030; the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) vision of reaching net zero GHG emissions across the whole of UK agriculture by 2040; and the UK’s target to bring all GHG emissions to net zero by 2050.
Actions will be implemented by the businesses themselves with WRAP compiling evidence to track progress and ensure accountability.
Processing giants such as ABP and 2 Sisters Food Group are signed up, along with trade bodies and not-for-profits like the NFU, British Retail Consortium, Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) and Zero Waste Scotland.
It’s a broad coalition with one obvious exception – there are just two foodservice businesses represented in the shape of Nando’s and Castle Howell Foods. A WRAP spokesperson told Footprint that engagement with the hospitality and foodservice sector had been hugely disrupted by the impact of Covid-19, and the closure of the sector overnight. “This meant engagement could not continue when other, more pressing concerns needed the attention of these businesses.”
The spokesperson noted that many other foodservice businesses have said they are keen to join the coalition at a later stage “but this will be once the pressure of lockdown has eased, and when they are once again operating under more normal circumstances”.
A strong foodservice presence will be critical to the success of the initiative. WRAP estimates that around 17% of meat used in out of home settings is wasted, equivalent to 49,000 tonnes and almost five times more by volume than in retail. Meat is mainly wasted in hospitality and foodservice operations because it is not used in time, is thrown away during preparation or left on customers’ plates. Initial signatories have committed to working with WRAP, the SRA and others to understand the reasons why meat items are wasted in out of home settings and support the development of a playbook of interventions to help reduce waste.
Consumption is another apparent hole in the “meat in a net zero world” vision. Notwithstanding intense debate around how different production systems contribute to GHG emissions and other environmental outcomes, it is widely accepted that, at a population level, reducing meat consumption will be necessary to align food and agriculture in western economies like the UK with net zero ambitions.
With a strong farming and meat processing presence in the list of signatories it’s perhaps not surprising that consumption is off the table. However, Joanna Trewern, sustainable diets and behaviour change specialist at WWF, says eating less meat must be an integral part of any conversation on meat in a net zero world. “This is an important initiative – it’s vital we reduce the impact of meat production on our environment and stakeholder collaboration is crucial to tackling this issue,” she says. “However, if the meat industry is to contribute meaningfully to the UK’s net-zero goals, we need to address both production and consumption.”
Trewern cites WWF research that shows the significant reduction in environmental impact that can be achieved by changing the balance of people’s diets. “This includes reducing our reliance on animal proteins and increasing our consumption of plant proteins – while meeting all the nutritional requirements in the government’s Eatwell Guide,” she says.
The WRAP spokesperson said the organisation “supports the calls to eat less meat and more sustainably produced meat when we do; and critically efforts to make sure as little as possible ends up being wasted”. However, they added that “while the majority of the UK still eats meat, our focus will be to ensure that this meat is produced as sustainably as possible, and that as little as possible goes to waste”.
Meat in a net zero world is a worthy ambition. But achieving it without the support of the foodservice sector – while also ignoring consumption – leaves the business signatories a long way from achieving their goals.