WOMEN’S FORUM SPECIAL REPORTS
An ongoing series of articles highlighting upcoming topics and topical outcomes from Women’s Forum events around the world
Women's Forum Italy: Interview of Julie Hill, Chair of the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Program, for the Women’s Forum Italy’s “Waste not, want less? Tackling commercial and household food waste ” session.
The Expo experience was a new one for me. Arriving in Milan, I was ready for the parade of pavilions built by the dozens of countries selling their wares, some extraordinarily lavish, but I wondered how such a show would deal with the greatest issue facing mankind. The Italian hosts have made a magnificent job of showcasing their own food and agriculture, as well their growing ‘slow food’ movement, although the latter is tucked rather disappointingly in a corner. Elsewhere, the theme of food and sustainability is picked up with varying degrees of enthusiasm by the participants. The Austrians have built an entire indoor forest; the UK has bees and Pimms. The Israelis have made drip irrigation interesting, and the prize for the most visually stunning display goes to South Korea, which uses robots to explain how fermentation is the key to more nutritious food. The local and traditional jostle with the high-tech and futuristic.
I was there for the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, a conference that takes place in different locations around the world, and attracts high-profile speakers from every field. Part of me resists the idea that women need a special forum, we should surely be on a more equal footing by now? Progress is being made, but the reality is that women’s voices still often struggle to be heard. For me, to be almost exclusively in the company of women, international women, successful women, has an ease of communication rarely found elsewhere.
The Women’s Forum also picked up the theme of food and sustainability – hence my invitation to talk about WRAP’s role in preventing food waste. The central question was ‘Can we feed nine billion people?’ Yes, is the answer from most of the speakers. Will we do it sustainably? Depends what you mean. The familiar differences of view emerge quickly - intensive vs. organic agriculture, GM crops or not, large corporate or grass-roots initiatives as the route to success. . What did surprise and hearten me was the extent to which food waste was a recurrent theme in the discussions, and there was a consensus that we need international alliances to take it on.
A third of the world’s food is wasted somewhere between field and flesh. I know this, but it never ceases to shock. It is a dismal fact that illustrates the inattention of an otherwise ingenious species. The dismay is compounded by listening to how women still produce most of the world’s food, how they are already suffering the effects of climate change, and how in some places they are stopped from going to school unless the aid programs give them food to take home
For some countries, the problem is in, or just beyond, the field – no amount of clever agricultural technology will help if the storage facilities are wanting and the grain sits and rots, or poor transport means the crop reaches market in an inedible state. For other countries, the problems are our habits. WRAP’s research shows that consumers waste nearly half the 15 million tonnes of food that is thrown away annually in the UK, and more than 4 million tonnes of that could have been eaten. The two biggest culprits are not using food in time (or believing that we’re not in time because the labeling is confusing) and cooking or serving too much. Hence the idea behind the campaign ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ – why provide more than needed? The message is being heard as food waste in the UK fell by 21% over the five years WRAP has measured it, giving us confidence that it is possible to do things differently. An intensive effort in West London brought the waste 14% in just six months.
Further up the chain, a sizeable chunk of the 15 million tonnes comes from food manufacturing (just under 4 million tonnes), the hospitality industry (just under a million tonnes) and supermarkets (a quarter of a million tonnes). Which is why WRAP works with all those players, forging agreements that embody concrete reduction targets. WRAP has had significant success with this approach: during the second phase of the ‘Courtauld Commitment’, the waste of food and packaging in the supply chains of those participating reduced by more than 7% in two years, and the carbon impact of packaging came down 10% with lighter and cleverer packs. Next for the voluntary agreement strategy is the hospitality industry, where 19% of food purchased for use in restaurants and other catering ends up wasted. This industry, in common with the Courtauld signatories, is keen to work with WRAP to understand and address the reasons behind this waste because of the huge economic, environmental and reputational benefits.
In France, a law is near to the statute books that will stop supermarkets sending waste food to landfill: they should aim to prevent it first, and otherwise send it to charities for redistribution or for animal feed, or for treatment by composting or anaerobic digestion. It is not yet clear what impact this approach will have on the supply chain players, and whether it can get the corporate buy-in to the cause that WRAP’s initiatives have achieved. It has certainly put France’s food waste on the political map, and is likely to lead to more concerted measurement of the problem, one of the leading themes of our session at the Women’s Forum, and one of WRAP’s great strengths. WRAPs growing international presence will help to develop networks of countries that can exchange data, methods and learning, and ultimately, I hope, join forces to beat the waste.