Take only what you want to eat, writes Ben Elliot (pictured)
Take only what you want to eat. Waste not, want not. Your eyes are bigger than your stomach…
For anyone who, like me, was raised by the post-war generation, these expressions formed the background to every mealtime. They were family catchphrases, drilled into us by parents who understood the real value of food. Food was prized, and waste was abhorrent.
But the further away we move from that generation, the more the idea of food waste has become acceptable. We are now in a situation – as this paper has so brilliantly highlighted with its War On Food Waste campaign – where a third of the food we buy is thrown away. That's 4.5 million tons of edible food put in our bins rather than our bellies every year.
It's a staggering amount. And the cost isn't just financial. The correlation between throwing away that amount of food and the huge rise in carbon emissions is real and terrifying. This hits our planet hard.
Take the potato, the UK's most wasted food item. Every year in our homes the equivalent of 4.4 million whole potatoes, or 714,000 tons, go to waste. If you stop to consider the amount of energy consumed in the production of each one – the water used, the fuel needed for their transportation, the human endeavour involved – it is clear that we are doing something fundamentally wrong.
Every year in our homes the equivalent of 4.4 million whole potatoes, or 714,000 tons, go to waste (file photo)
If we stopped throwing away all those potatoes, it would do the same for the environment as taking 326,000 tons of CO2 out of our atmosphere – the same as planting 5.4 million trees. Similarly, if we all stopped wasting bread at home for a year, it would remove the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as planting 5.3 million trees.
The good news is that the UK is already leading the world in combating food waste. It's right to celebrate our considerable successes in tackling this blight on the planet – and to continue to champion the cause internationally.
For example, at the G7 summit in Cornwall last weekend, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson were served a menu created by MasterChef winner and passionate environmentalist Adam Handling.
Adam has a zero-waste policy in his kitchens. Every ingredient was sourced from the local area and used inventively to make eating as sustainable as possible.
Sea herbs were foraged from the local beach, mackerel was fished from the coast just around the corner from the hotel and every part of the vegetable was used. Then, anything surplus was donated to local charities. About seven tons – from the 3,000 breakfasts unused by police and security staff – was given to a Cornish food bank, for example. It was a fantastic example of our nation's inherently inventive and innovative spirit. And we should be proud.
In fact, one of the most encouraging parts of my role as the Government's food waste tsar is meeting people from across the country who are as passionate as me about tackling food waste. I've yet to meet a chef who isn't committed to rising to the challenge.
However, there is still some way to go. Every part of society has a role to play, from businesses to politicians to families. We can make real change happen – but it begins at home. During the exceptionally tough past year, perhaps one positive is that many households have changed their attitudes towards meal planning. Mealtimes have once again become a focal point for our day.
We have also been forced to stop and think about what is truly essential, limiting our trips to the shops and buying only what is necessary. We've learnt just how precious our food system is, with those who work in our world-leading food and drink sectors rightly lauded by the Environment Secretary as the 'hidden heroes' of the pandemic.
Environment Secretary George Eustice (pictured) rightly lauded those who work in our world-leading food and drink sectors as the 'hidden heroes' of the pandemic
Yet as we cautiously emerge from Covid restrictions, it would be all too easy to slip back into old habits. A summer of socialising is on the horizon, with barbecues in the garden and parties in the park as we reunite with friends and family. Too often, these gatherings leave mountains of leftover sausages, salads and buns destined for the bin at the end of a weekend of festivity.
This year, my family are doing things differently. We've adopted 'leftover Mondays', where we start each week by eating only what is left over from the week before. I urge you to join us. If we all did this, it would go some way to meeting The Mail on Sunday's challenge to cut food waste in our homes by 30 per cent.
Small changes such as that can make a big difference. Chilling our fridges properly at 5C or less, checking the freshness of eggs by dunking them in a bowl of water (they are still good to eat if they sink) and storing potatoes somewhere cool are other examples of how we can all play our part.
By starting at home, we can also galvanise the young. The under-35s have only ever experienced food prices at record lows and are used to an abundance of choice. They may be the most vocal generation when it comes to climate change, but more needs to be done to convince them that food waste is at the heart of the problem.
Engaging schoolchildren is crucial. My sons are six and eight and their teachers have made sure they are well versed in the importance of recycling. But when it comes to food waste, somehow the message hasn't landed yet.
We need to get schools on board, working with lunch providers to get innovative with waste and introducing school compost gardens. If we can fire up the young, we're halfway there.
The Government is determined to lead the fight for change at a policy level, too. We are having conversations about introducing mandatory food waste reporting by businesses. Getting firms to measure waste is the first step to them cutting down. Meanwhile, 53 per cent of households have food waste caddies collected by their local council. We want to see this at 100 per cent by 2023.
Our Environment Bill has legislated that every local authority must by then provide a separate weekly food waste collection.
We are also helping redistributors get more surplus food from the supply chain to those in need. I regularly volunteer with London-based food distribution charity The Felix Project. It rescues surplus food from businesses, supermarkets, restaurants and farms and delivers it to schools, food banks and other organisations serving people in need.
When Justin and Jane Byam Shaw started the charity, it found 300,000 meals a year to redistribute. Last month alone, they distributed almost three million.
Helping out, I'm always struck by two thoughts: first, astonishment at the sheer volume of wasted food; and second, at how many people are in desperate need of it. Now, when I walk past a grocery store or restaurant, I'm reminded that just feet from where staff bag up food for the bin there will be a child who won't have breakfast that morning.
Whatever drives you to take action – whether it's moral, environmental or financial reasons – the urgent need to clamp down on food waste is clear. So I urge you to join me in backing The Mail on Sunday's vital campaign – and help make needless food waste history.