Food and the Circular Economy
I regularly walk past a pan-handling man on my way to lunch. Exposing my own biases, he seems a little to well-dressed to ask for money, and with the embarrassment of my own ignorance, I shuffle by and on to my destination. It makes me think of the not so invisible divide between the materially secure and insecure and that maybe if we tread too close to that line, like Icarus’ dead wings, we might somehow fall back into the bad place where we once were or where we thought we might end up.
The thing is that we live in a prosperous, materially dense country where in most respects there is enough for everyone- we just don’t always distribute equitably. Take food for instance. There has been much said lately about the amount of food that becomes waste and its monetary, environmental and social impacts. Efforts, sincere and Morrissey earnest, have been rolled out in some parts of the country to tackle this issue with the bloom of success. (As an aside, we really need to stop calling the surplus food we want to donate waste.)
While clearly far too much avoidable food that should have been eaten ends up in our landfills, composting and anaerobic digestion facilities there are enough examples of those doing it right to offer us some clues on to properly address this issue. The recent Middlesex London Food Policy Council’s ‘Beyond Waste’ forum event, which brought together potential foodretail and food service donors with recipient organizations, was illuminating because of the extent of some ongoing efforts. I was impressed at the level of effort by organizations such as the London Convention Centre and Western University’s Hospitality Services which already donate much of their surplus food to local agencies. This consists largely of extra meals made during large events. They have managed to work out a symbiotic relationship with various donor agencies that happily receive this food. These systems have been in place for years and far from being a “new normal” to them they are just normal. Grocery stores, in London, are also starting to come board. For instance, at least 8 of them have been working with the London Food Bank to deliver perishable food, so much so that up to 40% of the food is fresh.
As I described on Global’s AM980’s Andrew Lawton’s afternoon radio show after the event these examples represent early adopters of what should be happening on a much broader scale. There are still plenty of opportunities. We have the foundation of future success and can use a bit of honey to expand their reach. However, at some point expanding these voluntary efforts requires some regulatory or “thou shalt” measures.
If we put this problem through the grist mill of the circular economy we can partially if not wholly excise what is now a waste management issue by tackling what is food supply chain inefficiency. At its heart, the circular economy is about and that by its nature proactively anticipates and plans for problems and challenges. This means explicit upstream thinking where we consider the waste implications along each step of the food supply chain.
Mandatory action is necessary, but it is important to underline that mandatory does not means prescriptive. This is about providing the right economic signals to ultimately spur investment and stimulate creativity in how to more fully deal with food and organic waste. That is the circular economy. Mechanisms such as organic restrictions or bans, disposal levies and source separation requirements can all achieve this signal. So how would this work in the real world.
At the retail:consumer interface, where we as householders purchase the food that we eat, this means a clearer strategy of what to do with the food that retailers either do not want to or cannot sell and then direct healthy and nutritious food to the food insecure.
It needs to be part of the evolution that initially saw food waste disposed and sent to landfill and now the option to direct it composting or anaerobic digestion. Businesses have formed around these waste management methods. The circular economy means upstream thinking and considering what to do with waste long before it needs to be considered a waste. The same retail know how that allows food retailers to order their food in can help them to inventory and ship their surplus food onwards to those that can use it. While current activities are in the not-for-profit domain there is a conceivable business opportunity to set up a company that moves surplus food from one location to another. It becomes a service much like waste management is a service.
A ban on food to landfill forces this upstream thinking. It is clear that avenues for this food have been created by the early adopters. Putting a hard stop to putting avoidable food in the garbage (or the green bin for that matter) will put everyone else on the road to ensuring the better and more equitable distribution of our food. While solving poverty is much larger than distributing surplus food it is a start and can at least temporarily alleviate someone’s hunger without even having to find new resources.
I walked by the pan handling man again, but this time looked him in the eye, asked him his name and put some change in his jar. I have enough. He doesn’t. It shouldn’t be that complicated.