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GroCycle's Urban Mushroom Farm installation on display at London's Victoria and Albert Museum will "illustrate the idea of a circular economy by using waste coffee grounds, including grounds from the V&A Benugo Café, to grow edible Oyster mushrooms. Once fully grown, these will be harvested and taken back into the café to be served in selected dishes."

Letter from London: Britain’s ‘Food Waste Tsar’ Wants Radical, Drastic Change

May 29, 2019

The British press has a knack for dubbing powerful individuals with outlandish titles. Regulators become “watchdogs” or “ombudsmen.” Owners of newspapers become “moguls.” If your day job is helping to tackle Britain’s food waste crisis, it turns out that in the eyes of the news media here, you’re akin to a Russian absolute ruler.

“Supermarkets are the first target of food waste tsar,” reads a headline in the Times of London from New Year’s Eve 2018, strapped above a more prosaic story covering the appointment of British businessman and philanthropist Ben Elliot — who runs the luxury lifestyle management company Quintessentially — to a newly-created anti-food waste role at the UK Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs.

A New Tsar is Born

That imperial moniker has somehow stuck with Elliot in his first half-year on the job, despite his DEFRA role being unpaid, voluntary, and without any divine right to send persistent food wasters to a Siberian Gulag. In fairness to sub-editors at the Times and elsewhere, however, his formal title at DEFRA is only marginally less peculiar: He is the UK Government’s Food Surplus & Waste Champion.

Pedants may protest at how his title implies his role is actually about championing the exact opposite of waste and surplus. But irrespective of titular quibbles, Elliot’s appointment by Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been a sign of how the UK government is not entirely dazed and confused by Brexit talks; it’s also getting serious about the country’s vast levels of food waste, a 10 billion tonne-a-year problem by current estimates.

That anti-food waste intent will gather steam alongside wider targeted restrictions on single-use plastics in the UK. This month, the government unveiled plans for a ban on the sale of plastic drink stirrers as of April 2020; currently, 316 million are used each year. The use of plastic straws and plastic cotton buds will also be restricted in what environmental groups have applauded as a significant step from Gove, a politician who has earned begrudging respect from several civil servants AFN has spoken to. Speaking anonymously, they describe him as being a hyperactive and imaginative official, if politically divisive for his pro-Brexit stance.

For food waste, unlike single-use plastic, the question is more complicated than what bans alone could realistically cover, requiring smarter and more open handling of supply chain data; the implementation of new technologies; greater flexibility over which charities or food banks can be trusted for food redistribution; regulatory reforms of confusing and often arbitrary labeling concepts like ‘best before,’ ‘sell by’ or ‘use-by’ dates; a reduction of excessive packaging use, along with a transition to more sustainable materials; and, more simply, smaller portion sizes.

There is also the possible revived practice of feeding food waste back to livestock; a practice clamped down on since the outbreak of foot and mouth disease over a decade ago. And all this comes with a call for educational initiatives to change consumer mindsets about household waste — as well as a need for firmer commitments from governments and businesses to do far more about pretty much all of the above.

“We need radical, drastic change,” Elliott tells AFN during an interview at London’s iconic Victoria and Albert Museum on May 13, where Elliot had gathered a constellation of leading doers and thinkers in the UK’s food waste space for a symposium.

A Plate-onic Symposium

Any good symposium, as Plato himself might agree, needs food for thought. At lunch in the museum’s Sackler Courtyard — still named after the family now accused of fuelling America’s opioid crisis — there were several camera crews clumsily lumbering to and fro in Elliot’s wake. The veteran luxury events organiser was overseeing a deployment of food vans and stands, where several celebrity chefs were cooking up dishes for guests (and for a few gatecrashers defying the old adage about the impossibility of a free lunch.) The chefs were all using ingredients that data show often get thrown away prematurely. This reporter, for example, was treated to a ‘wasted bean salad’ and ‘potato fritters with coriander chutney,’ served on paper plates with wooden forks.

Stomachs sufficiently appealed to, Elliot then turned to rhetoric in a nearby auditorium. “Wasting food is an environmental, moral and financial scandal,” Elliot warned in his introductory remarks. “If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. An estimated 800 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, and in the UK we squander 10 million tonnes of food and drink every year!”

To outline the scale of the problem further, and to tether the discussion of waste to a wider narrative around the fight against climate change and the loss of biodiversity, Elliot then gave the floor to Dr Emily Shuckburgh, OBE — a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey.

The Worst Thing Since Sliced Bread

Dr Shuckburgh’s keynote was replete with jaw-dropping statistics. “It is estimated,” she told the symposium, “that every day UK households bin approximately 20 million slices of bread, a million bananas, 3 million glasses of milk.”

“This equates,” she went on, “to almost £70 per month wasted by the average family with children. But not only does this mean that we are quite literally throwing money away, challenging basic common sense, it is also having a devastating effect on our environment.”

Out of the 10 million tonnes of food wasted each year in the UK, she noted, around 3 million comes from businesses such as food manufacturers, retailers, and hospitality. “More still is wasted before it even leaves the farm gate,” Dr Shuckburgh warned, pointing out that tackling food waste represents “one of the greatest opportunities for individuals, companies and communities to contribute to reversing global warming and at the same time to feed more people, to increase economic benefits and to preserve threatened ecosystems.”

Concluding, she highlighted that between 2007 and 2015, food waste in the UK did reduce by around 13%. The savings just in terms of avoided greenhouse gas emissions, she calculated, worked out the same as taking about 2.2 million cars off the road for a year. Since then, however, “the data suggest little or no change.”

Slower perceived progress on these fronts and others relating to the environment can bring public backlash. Over the last few months, the self-declared Extinction Rebellion protest movement has been blockading London’s streets, with some demonstrators gluing themselves to trains and the London Stock Exchange to express their frustration.

At the symposium, Gove addressed these concerns indirectly in an eloquent speech of his own. “How we produce our food says a great deal about us and what we value,” he said, later adding that “the way we produce our food at the moment is profligate.”

That all may sound “puritan” or “Calvinist,” he reflected, but the country has a long tradition of reducing waste by making distinctive dishes like “oxtail soup” or “bubble and squeak” — so it is possible to reduce food waste in a way that celebrates “human ingenuity” and “culinary originality.”

Gove then mentioned how earlier this year the government launched a £15 million scheme to tackle food waste, building on its Resources and Waste Strategy which sets out how the government will introduce annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses. The government recently announced the first round of successful applicants to receive £4 million of funding. (Should progress be insufficient, DEFRA has warned, there will be a consultation on legal powers to introduce mandatory targets for food waste prevention.)

Similar themes percolated the following panel discussions on best practices and where companies and consumers can do more. Thomasina Miers, a chef and co-founder of the Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca, said a “neat solution has been with us for thousands of years,” referring to reintroducing livestock waste schemes. Jason Wouhra, director of East End Foods, described how his company was helping further up the supply chain, working with Innovate UK to use the ash from wasted rice burnt off during processing in concrete production in India. Giles Coren, a restaurant critic, raised eyebrows by nobly calling himself the “embodiment of the problem,” but declared willingness to sacrifice his own career in service of a greater cause: “Ban all food advertising.” However, Henry Dimbleby, founder of healthy fast food chain Leon and co-Founder and director of The Sustainable Restaurant Association, saw more hope in data science coming to the rescue than any sweeping ad crackdown: “If I could wave a wand, it would be to let that data free.” The idea here is to give access to entrepreneurs, governments, and charities to identify exactly where the waste is happening across the supply chain, to work out what to do about it.

Justin Byam Shaw, founder of The Felix Project & chairman of ESI Media, had an idea that could perhaps ruffle feathers in the Brexit era: Look to France. “In France, nearly 10 times as much food reaches charities as reaches charities in the UK,” he said. “They get a tax break in France for redistributing food.” And besides, he lamented, the UK’s ‘best before’ date labelling system is “a complete nonsense.”

Stefano Agostini, CEO of Nestle UK & Ireland, was also keen to issue a progress report on moving the company’s waste away from landfill, and was quick to raise his hands and say how times are changing at the Swiss conglomerate.“We are part of the issue,” he said, “but we want now to be part of the solution.” The plan is now “to improve our packaging. Improve our portions. Improve the information on our product.”

Meanwhile, Judith Batchelar, director of Sainsbury’s Brand, was similarly eager to point out how her company would be driving ahead with change. “One of the concerns that we have is downstream visibility,” she said of redistributing food to charities or NGOs. “We need full visibility of the food chain.”

Her company’s efforts to make its data comprehensive, clean and interoperable has been a constant challenge, she said: “We’re part of a global food system that is unbelievably complicated,” making reporting and monitoring difficult. A lot could be done, however, on educating the consumers, she noted, who often misunderstand concepts around food storage: “Most people’s fridges aren’t at the right temperature!”

If its freshly released Future of Food Report is anything to go by, analysts at Sainsbury’s still believe global food waste issues will bedevil us all far into the future. The report does envision food waste to one day be “a thing of the past” — but that’s just the assumption in its scenario for the year 2169.

Pledge to Halve Food Waste By 2030

Back in 2019, over recycled aubergine cake at teatime, Elliot decided the present was the time for everyone to “step up to the plate.” Not up to the aubergine cake: that meant a signed pledge to halve food waste by 2030.

Leading the way were Gove and Environment Minister Therese Coffey, who were followed over the course of the day by food retail giants Nestlé, TescoWaitrose — and Sainsbury’s.

The pledge aims to bring the UK in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3. It is a catalyst for achieving the WRAP and IGD Food Waste Reduction Roadmap that aims to have half of all 250 of the UK’s largest food businesses measuring, reporting and acting on food waste by 2019. Further progress reports on that pledge will be presented at a Food Conversation week of action in November, also to be chaired by Elliot.

“Hopefully it will not be a league of shame, but a league of businesses doing a good job,” Elliot said of his plans for November. Eventually, he said, if they don’t get their houses in order, “mandatory legislation will happen, and in my job, I will recommend that. But today we’re giving people a chance.”

A Trip Advisor For Supermarkets

Guiding delegates through ways to change government, corporate, or consumer habits was Dr David Halpern, head of the Behavioural Insights Team & founder of the government’s ‘Nudge Unit.’ One of his suggestions was a Trip Advisor of sorts which could give a full monitoring service of nearby supermarkets, where waste performance and carbon emissions metrics could be available to help consumers choose which supermarket to go to and which products to buy.

Representatives of existing apps were also on stage. Jamie Crummie, the UK cofounder of the food redistribution social network app Too Good to Go, believes so much could happen from raising waste awareness through technology and making the process of preventing food waste enjoyable and sociable. “What’s more fun than rescuing an entire cake from a French patisserie that would have otherwise gone to waste?” he asked.

The answer, at least for anyone interested in food tech, could perhaps be a stroll through the V&A’s exhibition, ‘FOOD: Bigger than the plate’ which explores how innovative individuals, communities and organisations are radically re-inventing how we grow, distribute and experience food. Elliot’s symposium attendees were all offered a private view ahead of its opening, sending visitors on a sensory journey through the food cycle, from compost to table. It poses questions about how the collective choices we make can lead to a more sustainable, just, and delicious food future in unexpected and playful ways. “What if we started thinking about food less as a thing, and more of a relationship?” asked Catherine Flood, the exhibit curator. “We don’t see the true cost of food, and therefore we don’t value it.”

Inside were a dazzling set of exhibit items, some of which perhaps familiar to old hands in the agri and food tech innovation space. Standing out was the 100% biodegradable (and even edible) packaging made from algae, designed by Skipping Rocks Lab, which has recently entered into a trial with online ordering service Just Eat to replace plastic sauce sachets with their alternative algae product.

Elsewhere in the exhibit was Loowatt, a waterless flush system used in residential neighbourhoods in Madagascar, as well as at UK festivals. The company’s vision, crude as it may sound to those with gentle stomachs, is to retrieve nutrients from excretion rather than just flush it away.

There were also several neat coffee cups on display made by the company Kaffeeform. These are coffee cups in the sense that they were made from, well, coffee. Other curious bits of crockery to inspect were Cyclebank, grown from the leftovers and seeds of Yerba Mate. When you smash it open, you can bury it and let the plants grow. Beside that were featured products from Malai Biomaterials Design, which makes plastic-like products from coconut waste.

Bloody Cups and Taking The Piss

And then there’s one that really seemed like it was taking the piss (the British phrase for making fun of someone or something) — because it was. Ceramic vessels glazed with human urine. If you’d rather your crockery was made from dairy, not urine, the artist Tessa Silva has created a milk bowl made from, yes, milk products, to form a plasticy texture; early alternatives to plastic did include tasein, so this is actually a revival of the old ways before fossil fuels dominated the scene. If the urine didn’t make you squeamish, there’s cow blood which is discarded in vast quantities at slaughterhouses; Basse Stitgen designed an egg cup out of the stuff, as well as an eerie vinyl record made from cow’s blood that plays the heartbeat of that very same cow.

Any other gross materials we are not using enough of in our day to day lives? With their product Merda Cotta, Gianantonio Locatelli and Luca Cipelletti of the crudely named Shit Museum, have developed a process to extract heat, energy, and fertiliser from their cow’s manure, followed by mixing the rest with Tuscan clay to make ‘Merda Cotta.’

One highlight of the exhibit for fungus lovers is that designed by Grocycle. It’s an indoor mushroom farm feeding off the discarded coffee beans from the V&A’s cafe. “99 percent of the coffee bean is wasted,” claims Grocycle’s director, Eric Jong.

The exhibit culminates with the Loci Food Lab, put together by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. It’s designed for people to create an idealised and personalised future food diet based on their values.

Speaking to AFN briefly before entering the exhibit for the first time to see a few of these otherworldly ideas, Elliot explained how “If an entrepreneur sets up a business that goes in some way to alleviate food waste, and makes a profit, I don’t think I have any problem with that whatsoever. If you think about where food should go in a society of 62 million people where potentially two million people have food scarcity issues on their hands, it would be brilliant if it could go to those organisations that would help them first.”

“I don’t think it’s because we’ve got a lack of innovation, and I don’t think it’s that we’ve got a lack of money in terms of capital on the sidelines to do this,” he said, name-checking companies he’d been following closely like Hummingbird upstream in the supply chain, and others like Olio, Winnow and Karma that he has had exposure to and was impressed by.

“I’ve got to look at this properly,” he said to his advisors, warding them off as he inspected the various exhibit items on display, pausing studiously beside the Merda Cotta. His advisors finally ushered him out to a glittering drinks reception in another museum courtyard. There were plates of bread awaiting, served with ChicP, a houmous dip made from reused chickpeas.

Chloe Stewart, who runs a company called Nibs Etc that has developed a process to turn juice pulp into granola, wondered why people still called these sorts of canapes, as well as her company’s product, a type of food waste. “The language needs to change,” she said in an emailed note after the symposium. “It is time we stopped talking about food ‘waste,’ and instead look at food at each stage of its cycle, as a resource. Currently, food waste as an issue is the result of a criminally inefficient use of resources.”

Toasting London Food Tech Week: “Bread shouldn’t be wasted; neither should you be…”

Bottles of Toast Ale, a beer brewed from surplus bread, were clinked and swilled across town a week later, during YFood’s London Food Tech Week. Remembering a comment from the founder Tristram Stuart the week prior, “Bread shouldn’t be wasted; neither should you be…” this reporter was careful with how much of it he drank.

One side event on a rooftop terrace at dusk in the City of London was with the pitch competition FoodBytes! by Rabobank. Before brandishing a flashy silver card holder and handing over her card, Solveiga Pakštaitė, founder of Mimica Lab, told AFN about her scientific trials with labels made from bacteria. These bacteria turn bumpy at the same rate as the food starts to rot — a real-time warning sign that the food or drink inside the pack is no longer safe to consume.

Simon Millman, COO of CupClub, clutching his bottle of Toast, gregariously outlined his company’s app for a reusable coffee cup sharing and hand back scheme.

This is managed via RFID chips on the lid and at the bottom of the cup; these chips log whether the cup has been leased or safely returned. Millman considered this a more user-friendly and faster solution than QR codes, which some rival companies such as ButterflyCup seem to go for. One of CupClub’s prototype cups tested by AFN was, however, initially tricky to open properly. Other headwinds could include partner companies all bickering over branding space on those cups, or there could soon be demanding and painstaking requests from partners and clients seeking to integrate the scheme into their own apps.

For Amira Mahmoud Elsekely, CEO of the online Egyptian-inspired restaurant Conscience Kitchen, her waste reduction comes from using locally-sourced food mostly from a centralised cooking facility — which often get nicknamed pejoratively as ‘dark kitchens’ — via Deliveroo, Uber Eats and City Pantry. Doing so, she said, allows her to adopt a “zero waste policy.”

“I completely eradicated anything that is pre-cooked,” she explained. “The menu is created to be cooked after the order is placed. We never end up with cooked items at the end of any shift. We use the whole fruit or vegetable inclusive of the skin; we only produce organic waste that is edible like onions and eggs shells — all other waste is fully recyclable materials.” Then, she added, there’s a “circulation system of fresh ingredients to shelters and food banks.”

Image: GroCycle’s Urban Mushroom Farm installation on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum will “illustrate the idea of a circular economy by using waste coffee grounds, including grounds from the V&A Benugo Café, to grow edible Oyster mushrooms. Once fully grown, these will be harvested and taken back into the café to be served in selected dishes.” 

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