Save Energy – Eat Horse

Last week was a very interesting week in the UK media, which points an important lesson to those in Government who believe that it’s easy to get people to change behaviour and reduce their energy consumption.  It also resulted in my digging out some interesting statistics about the value of smart metering and how we can most effectively reduce CO2 emissions.

The  week started off on Monday with newspaper headlines about how much food is wasted every year.  Picking up on a report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the papers covered the fact that around 50% of all food produced ends up as waste.  WRAP, an organisation that works to reduce waste in the UK, reckons that UK consumers throw away around 19% of the 38 million tonnes of food they buy each year.

On Tuesday, we forgot all about food waste, as the media’s attention switched to the fact that small amounts of horse and pig meat had been found in cheap beef burgers from Tesco and other supermarket chains.   

On Wednesday, a helicopter flying along the Thames hit a crane and crashed in flames in the middle of the rush hour.  It narrowly missed a busy commuter station and passing trains, and was only about 200 metres away from crashing into the MI6 building, which would have provided a real-life version of the recent Skyfall.  It was a story straight out of a disaster movie and in any normal week it should have run for days.

But it didn’t.  On Thursday the papers carried full page apologies from Tesco as they pleaded for forgiveness for inadvertently leading the nation into the despicable Gallic culinary habit of eating man’s four legged friend.  But they’d obviously learnt something from Monday headlines.  Rather than sending the perfectly edible burgers to landfill, they had decided to incinerate them, turning food waste into energy.  So far, they’ve disposed of 10 million perfectly edible burgers, which is obscene.  For the UK press the prospect of eating a trace of horse was far more worrying than our secret services going up in smoke.  (Although the Evening Standard should be commended for an article comparing the taste of horse, buffalo, crocodile and camel burgers – the camel won.)

Even the Jewish Chronicle got in on the act, pointing out that kosher burgers were horse free, and forgetting about the problem of 30% pigmeat in the burgers until the penultimate line of their article.  Although their web version of the story has an excellent link to a story about a stray cat in the soup cauldron in the Knesset kitchens.

What this demonstrates is how difficult it is to get a sensible message across to the British public.  Tuesday’s morning papers, before the horsemeat story took hold, were filled with rightly indignant letters from readers condemning the level of food waste.  By Thursday the populace were happy to throw away any meat product that might have ever had a glancing acquaintance with horse DNA.  Although Exotic Meats – an online purveyor of some very tasty animals, did sell out of horsemeat, so there were apparently a few sane individuals left in the country.  If you want to delve into the sorry tale of the horse meat scandal, there’s an excellent infographic from Aldo Baker which explains it.

All of this prompted me to read the WRAP report in more detail than I might otherwise have done.  I’m glad I did, for it contains some very interesting figures.  The first one I’d like to highlight is the total estimated value of food waste in the UK in 2010.  This is food that is bought, taken home and then thrown away, because it’s unwanted, goes rotten or is more than we can eat.  It doesn’t include any wastage elsewhere in the production chain.

In 2010, WRAP estimated that we wasted £11.8 billion of food.  That’s money that we spent on food that we didn’t eat, which averages out to around £420 per household.

The £11.8 billion stuck in my mind, because that’s not very different from the estimated cost of the UK smart metering program, according to the most recent impact assessment.  Although in the case of smart metering, only £4.3 billion of savings accrue to customers – the rest are network and generation benefits.  In other words, the average consumer wastes almost three times as much money on food waste as they do on energy waste.

The next interesting figure was a calculation of the CO2 savings that would be obtained if this excess food were not produced and sold.  WRAP estimated that would be around 17 million tonnes of CO2 based on those 2010 figures.  The Smart Metering Impact Assessment reckons that the full smart metering deployment will reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by 14.5 million tonnes each year.  So if we want to reduce CO2, there’s more to be saved by concentrating on food waste, rather than energy efficiency.

Which means the big question is:  Why don’t we give up on smart metering and try to persuade the country to achieve the same savings and CO2 reduction by educating them about food waste.  I think the latter might be a lot easier.  As any behavioural psychologist will tell you, if you’re going to change consumer behaviour, they need to trust you.  Survey after survey tells us that no-one trusts the utilities.  Yet we only need to look at the TV schedules and the sales of TV cookbooks to know that as a nation we trust our Jamies, Delias, Hestons and Gordons.  We even trust hairy bikers more than we trust utilities.

Then there’s pricing and choice.  The supermarkets know how to use pricing to affect usage in exactly the way that utilities don’t.  Instead of an increasingly regulated set of “one size fits all” tariffs, supermarkets employ a wide range of promotions and pricing to influence what we buy.  They’re particularly good at it because they collect, analyse and act on massive amounts of data.  Unlike the utilities, who struggle to produce correct bills based on one meter reading per year.

We can even use the campaign to promote healthier eating.  How much energy could we save if, as a nation, we didn’t boil our sprouts and cabbage until they’re a pulp, or roast our meat to a leathery black mass?  So addressing food waste could have a knock-on effect on energy saving, as well as improving our health.

The only fly in the ointment is the fickleness of the public, which this week’s headlines displayed.  That is a challenge not just for food waste, but also for smart metering.  A large part of the expected savings that “fund” the smart metering program come from consumer behaviour change, and there’s little evidence that consumers won’t be just as fickle in their energy saving as they are in their approach to food wastage, however much either initiative might save them. 

It would be nice to think that someone in Government is making this connection and asking what to do?  Because I suspect it would be more effective to tackle one of these issues properly rather than playing at both.  But smart metering has momentum.  So although concentrating on food waste would save the same amount of CO2, as well as saving consumers considerably more money, my guess is that the current momentum will win.  The irony is that the GB Smart Metering program only exists because of a Government requirement to meet the European 20-20-20 mandate on CO2 emissions.  It’s not because the utilities want it – in general, they don’t.

Which means that we will stagger on with an expensive, technically over-specified smart metering system to try and meet a European carbon target which is largely irrelevant, whilst ignoring an obscene on-going level of food waste.  Instead of saving money for the average consumer, it’s a strategy which will condemn them to spend more.

Which bring me back to the burger scare.  It makes you realise that the real problem is the attention to minutiae rather than looking at the big picture.  Small traces of horse in the food chain ought to be irrelevant, but they’re not. The public and press will fixate on detail rather than big picture.  The real question is whether the Government is backing the right horse?

So if we want some sanity to enter the smart metering program, I’d suggest that we learn from last week’s headlines and start spreading the rumour that French energy inspectors have detected traces of dog DNA in British smart meters.  That’s probably our only hope of having a rational debate.