Three programs pay public funds to waste operators who use anaerobic digestion (AD) to create biogas from food waste – a fourth set to start in the fall for an additional £ 150million, bringing the total grant to 750 million pounds sterling.
These subsidies, up from £ 200million five years ago, are so lucrative that AD operators will even pay food companies to take away their excess produce, rather than the other way around.
As a result, the equivalent of 150 million meals of edible foods are sent to AD factories each year, at a time when Food Foundation research shows 30% of parents are worried about feeding their children this summer.
Meanwhile, food redistributors who funnel surplus food to charities and schools – such as FareShare, The Felix Project, and City Harvest – receive no government subsidies and have to rely, for the most part, on donations and funds. fundraising.
The Felix Project, the largest distributor of surplus food in London, runs a social kitchen that can cook and distribute 1.5 million meals a year, as pointed out The independentof the Help the Hungry Campaign. It reduces food waste by turning large amounts of super-short-run excess produce and huge commercial-sized catering packs into nutritious meals, but relies on the supply of excess food.
The Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (Adba), which represents the industry, admitted that the growing number of AD factories – built in response to lucrative subsidy programs – has distorted the business practices of AD operators who are growing. compete for food waste. The competition became so fierce that it made them pay the grocery stores to take away their surplus.
Adba said the increase in these “negative entry fees” was a “new and growing phenomenon,” while food redistribution charities called the problem “utter insanity.”
Subsidies were initially seen as a good idea, as anaerobic digestion is a greener alternative for waste disposal than incineration or landfill, which releases methane into the atmosphere.
DA factories work by pulverizing food waste into sludge and passing it through a giant sealed tank (anaerobic means “oxygen-free”) to create two products: a nutrient-rich digestate that farmers use as fertilizer; and biogas which can be sold to gas and electricity networks to power our homes.
Digestate is not profitable for transporting long distances and is sold at cost, but the biogas generates millions – the government pays producers a flat rate, or a subsidy, on top of the market rate that the power grids pay. . These grants, guaranteed for up to 20 years, encourage waste operators to spend the approximately £ 15 million it costs to build an AD plant.
There are now 685 factories in the UK, an increase of around 100 over the past four years, and between them they consume 64,500 tonnes of food a year that ‘could and should’ be used to feed the hungry, according to a government-funded charity. Waste and Resources Action Program (Wrap). This equates to over 150 million meals and is more than double the 51,420 tonnes of surplus food currently redistributed.
Meanwhile, 2.5 million food packages were delivered to people in crisis by the Trussell Trust food bank group in the first year of the pandemic, while 4.7 million adults are food insecure . As the school holidays approach, 1.7 million students are faced with weeks without free school meals.
FareShare boss Lindsay Boswell said, “The bad guys in this area aren’t the AD industry, it’s the grants system. What AD is doing, turning food waste into green energy, is a wonderful thing. But when people are hungry because of the way the AD industry is supported by the government, then it is madness and it is wrong.
“We worked with a carrot farmer who gave us 10 tonnes of carrots a week and suddenly stopped. When we asked him why, he replied, “We have DA factories ready to buy it from us now and we can’t afford not to take it.” “
He added that the subsidies had the “unintended consequence” of using taxpayers’ money to overturn the government-accepted “food waste hierarchy” – which states that surplus foods that are edible must first. be redistributed to people.
Just five years ago, food companies were paying AD operators an ‘entry fee’ of up to £ 63 per tonne to get rid of their surplus food, while today Adba said that the average price was £ 0 per tonne. Adba estimates that around 15% of transactions involved AD operators paying to take away waste, which represents around 120,000 tonnes of the 800,000 processed each year by food suppliers.
When asked about their agreements with AD operators for excess edible food, none of the top 10 supermarkets disclosed whether they were paid.
Charlotte Morton, Managing Director of Adba, said: “It is difficult to know the exact amount of negative entry fees as the information is considered commercially sensitive and is not readily available, but we estimate that around 15% of AD food waste transactions involve the AD operator paying for waste removal. DA factories compete strongly for food waste because DA’s income depends on energy production and food waste produces a lot of biogas.
There are currently three grant programs for DA: the renewable bond to support power generation, worth £ 127 million per year; the Renewable Heat Incentive, worth £ 385 million, to support the production of biogas and biomethane; and £ 88 million in feed-in tariffs, encouraging the production of renewable electricity. From August, grants will also be available under the £ 150million Green Gas Support Program for new plants producing biomethane, a greener form of energy than biogas.
But even those behind the DA factories question the subsidies available and the impact they have. Adba said The independent: “We too want edible food to go to people and not go to waste. The problem lies with government subsidy programs, as they put too much emphasis on the energy produced by AD factories, which distorts economic behavior and produces undesirable results. AD is the greenest waste management technology we have and should be supported over other waste disposal methods. But there is no doubt that we need an overhaul and a new system. ”
Dan Purvis, COO of AD’s south London company, Bio Collectors, said: “The grant model was a great tool to launch AD, but it’s now past its expiration date. My belief is that anti-dumping subsidies should be removed and renewables should be self-sustaining and charged at market rates. But the government has to create the right overall framework. “
Company CEO Paul Killoughery said he supported the idea that surplus edible food should go to humans, but warned that removing all subsidies would be a “disaster” for climate change, because AD plants would no longer be viable. “To be clear, we don’t want to compete with FareShare and Felix and we support the idea that all edible food surplus should go to humans. But that leaves over 3 million tonnes of inedible food waste to deal with and we are the best solution to prevent the dire environmental impacts of incineration and landfill.
The Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, “Our priority is to prevent food waste in the first place. When waste cannot be avoided, edible waste should be redistributed. In cases of unavoidable food waste, anaerobic digestion presents the best environmental result, due to the generation of biofuel and digestate.