Following the severe outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, the Government banned the practice of feeding animals catering waste which had been in contact with or contained animal by-products. This policy, promptly adopted across the EU, successfully eradicated new cases of the disease. But it also resulted in the abandonment of the useful tradition of collecting swill, which had been an efficient way of using waste to raise livestock.
The rules then enforced, in accordance with the prevailing zeitgeist, were heavily weighted towards mitigating the serious public health risk. But, today, these same rules are consigning large amounts of fodder to the dustbin. But rising food prices and binding EU targets for landfill and greenhouse gas emissions mean that now is the time to reassess the balance of regulation towards resource efficiency.
At the EU level, recent policy changes have developed in light of scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority and advances in animal feed screening tests. The European Council is calling for the ban on non-ruminant animals to be lifted, so that feeding pig, chicken and fish by-products to pigs, chicken and fish will now be permitted (with the exception of cannibalism).
“Perhaps there is a market for eco-pork, a lower carbon alternative to soya-fed meat”
In light of this, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington recently tabled a debate in the House of Lords, during which ex-Defra minister Lord Henley announced a departmental review of policy in this area, taking into account both the scientific health-based considerations as well as consumer attitudes. To this end, Defra has commissioned the Food and Environment Research Agency to look further into this food waste solution.
Perhaps the toughest challenge for making any meaningful change in this area would be selling this message to consumers and the press. Getting the public reacquainted with the idea of catering waste-fed meat will be challenging, but perhaps there is a market for ‘eco-pork’ advertised as a lower carbon alternative to the soya-fed pork currently found on supermarket shelves.
Food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart has called for a redesigned food waste hierarchy, including a tier for feeding livestock. Meanwhile, the Government is committed to remaining technology- neutral with regards to energy recovery, allowing the most effective methods to take hold where they fit best. Progress on animal by-product regulations would give us more options on how we deal with the current UK food waste mountain, estimated to be between 18 and 20 million tonnes annually.
Other benefits would include a less carbon-intensive farming industry, with reduced dependency on imported grains, releasing some global pressure on rainforest encroachment and readjusting the UK’s balance of payments.
Nevertheless, it should be remembered, as we edge closer to finding a solution for this particular waste problem, that prevention is always better than cure. Preventing food waste altogether should remain our ultimate aim.
Mark Spencer is Conservative MP for Sherwood and a co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group