£600m government subsidies driving food waste are ‘bonkers’, says Boris Johnson’s adviser

Exclusive: The government’s food waste tsar, Ben Elliot, has vowed to tackle the imbalance caused by subsidies for biogas production

David Cohen
Monday 28 June 2021 17:15
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<p>Ben Elliot, the government’s food surplus and waste champion</p>

Ben Elliot, the government’s food surplus and waste champion

The government’s refusal to address the soaring amounts of good-to-eat surplus food being treated as waste instead of given to the hungry – driven by £600m in government subsidies – is “a travesty” and “makes no sense”, Boris Johnson’s food tsar has told The Independent.

The Independent revealed that these subsidies for biogas produced by anaerobic digestion (AD) has led to huge demand for the pulverised food waste needed for the process. As a result, rather than food producers paying for their waste to be taken away, in some cases they are taking money to hand over their food waste – including surplus food that is still edible.

It means 150 million meals a year that could be redistributed to the hungry are instead used for AD – at a time when demand for food banks is soaring.

Ben Elliot, who is also chair of the Conservative Party, said: “This is bonkers, this is a travesty, this makes no sense whatsoever. I will be sitting down with Defra [The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] to re-evaluate this issue properly. AD is the best form of green disposal we have for food waste but government subsidies of AD were not intended to have this impact on good-to-eat surplus food. We might need to look into whether central government should make it mandatory for food producers and outlets to first offer their surplus food to food redistributors.”

His intervention comes after Defra doubled-down on its position by rejecting a funding proposal from FareShare, the country’s biggest food redistributor, “to even the playing field” between the AD industry and food redistributors. It was turned down despite being backed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee of cross-party MPs.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of FareShare, said: “We asked for £15m a year to support ourselves and our network and 18 other redistribution organisations, including The Felix Project.”

The select committee had evaluated the proposal and recommended government to continue funding FareShare to offset the costs of redistribution for at least two more years. But earlier this month, the government gave its response: “No further funds allocated and no plans at the present time to tender further grant opportunities.”

The hammer blow for food redistributors came as the government prepared to introduce a new AD subsidy of up to £150 million that will take AD subsidisation to £750m a year.

Boswell said: “Compared to the £750m, what we called for is a minute amount. One civil servant said to me, ‘The problem is the amount you’re asking for is so little it doesn’t grab our attention.’ I find that attitude to taxpayer’s money rather odd. We are not telling the government to stop supporting AD, which is the best and greenest way to treat food waste, but it’s in nobody’s interests that good surplus food is turned into biomethane.

“When Michael Gove was secretary of state in charge of Defra in 2018, he gave us £1.9 million to fund a pilot scheme,” says Boswell. The government called the grant Increasing Surplus Food Redistribution Through Overcoming Financial Barriers. It was part of a wider £11m pot awarded to redistribution organisations across the country.

Boswell said: “We created a scheme called Surplus with Purpose in which we used the grant to make it cost-neutral for farmers and manufacturers to redistribute their food surplus to those in need rather than let it rot in the ground, go to landfill or be sent for animal feed. It worked brilliantly. Because of the pilot, we redistributed an additional 4,447 tonnes of food, enough to create 10.5 million meals for vulnerable people.”

FareShare signed up 300 partners to the scheme and the government reported on its successful delivery in its assessment of the pilot in October 2020. But when Defra funding ended in March 2020 and FareShare asked the government to extend support, it was denied.

Boswell added: “We‘ve been knocking at this door for several years now, saying: ‘You’ve got the evidence, you can see it works’. All we want is an even playing field with the AD industry. Michael Gove got it and with COP 26 coming, you would think Defra would want to back us. The daft thing is that I don’t think the current situation is what government wants either.”

FareShare shifted 55,000 tonnes of surplus food in aggregate in the year to March 2021, while Felix shifted 9,700 tonnes in 2020 and is targeting 16,000 tonnes for 2021. Is there a danger that supply is creating its own demand? That the subsidisation of food redistributors could create yet another negative unintended consequence – a society dependent on charities for food.

“We don’t want to create a situation of food dependency,” said Boswell. “But as for need, we have been growing at 30 per cent a year for eight years and have never got close to meeting demand, so we don’t yet know the ceiling. Until that happens, our focus is on getting more food. We’ve got the infrastructure, the warehouses, the freezer capacity and the vans, it’s the cost of accessing food that’s our biggest hurdle – and right now, that is being driven by the unintended consequences of the AD subsidy.

“Apart from the adverse environmental costs, we are passionate about what food does. There will always be people who fall through the cracks and giving them food offers them a moment to connect. Talk to a homeless person over a meal about what has happened in their life and that can be the beginning of a turnaround. Food is not just nutrients, it is the building blocks of community and society. That is why it is too important to waste.”

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