Waste Not, Want Not

Tristram Stuart, winner of the 2011 Sophie Prize (awarded annually for environment and sustainable development), gave a compelling TED talk recently on the global food waste scandal (http://www.ted.com/talks/tristram_stuart_the_global_food_waste_scandal.html?awesm=on.ted.com_eBGP). The answer to feeding the world’s starving millions is not the production of genetically modified crops, or clearing more land, or more efficient and intensive agriculture but decreasing the phenomenal amount of food that is wasted every day. According to Stuart there are one billion malnourished people in the world but the 40 million tonnes of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to feed all of them (http://www.tristramstuart.co.uk/FoodWasteFacts.html). The UK, US and Europe produce nearly twice as much food as is required to feed their populations. UK households waste 25% of all the food they buy (obviously food prices haven’t risen high enough).

Why does this happen? Much of it is due to our obsession with perfection. 20-40% of UK fruit and vegetables are rejected because of minor blemishes or imperfections causing them to fail supermarkets’ cosmetic standards (imposed presumably by consumers). 40-60% of all fish caught in Europe are discarded because they are the wrong size or species. Apparently 24-35% of school lunches end up in the bin (probably because someone included a vegemite sandwich in the mistaken belief that it was food). And what happens to all the bread crusts generated by sandwich bars? They end up feeding the starving thousands, the thousands of birds that congregate at landfill sites. Speaking of the starving thousands Stuart organised a “Feeding the 5000” event in Trafalgar Square in 2009 and 2011, where 5000 members of the public were given a free lunch using oddly shaped fruits and vegetables and other ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted (http://www.feeding5k.org/).

Food wastage is hardly new. I can still remember Europe’s milk lakes and butter mountains generated by subsidies paid to keep inefficient farmers in business. The problem has never been a lack of production but a lack of effective distribution. But who wants to distribute food to people who can’t pay for it?

While supermarkets and restaurants waste an enormous amount of food each day plenty more is thrown out of our household kitchens. We all need to lead by example. My kids are insanely fussy when it comes to spots on bananas or fruit going a bit soft. While they won’t eat it as is they are more than happy to consume it as a banana milkshake. Buy loose fruit and vegetables, not the pre-packaged plastic wrapped stuff. We litter the environment with more than enough plastic as it is. Don’t throw out tonight’s leftovers. Use them for tomorrow’s lunch, or as a base for tomorrow night’s dinner, or freeze the surplus. If you must throw it out toss it into the compost bin and from there onto the vegie garden. If you don’t have a vegie garden, why not? It’s a great way of getting fresh non-pesticide coated vegetables onto the table and teaches kids that food doesn’t come from supermarkets already wrapped in plastic. Pushed for space the Europeans have a long history of communal vegetable gardens. A UK group appears to have taken this to the next level by cultivating vacant land around town and filling the spaces with edible plants (http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/home). There are leeks outside the college, cherry trees in the car park, and a herb garden outside the railway station. The group is run by volunteers and the food is grown for anyone to pick and use.

A lot of your food waste will be eagerly consumed by your chickens, who will return the favour by providing you with a regular supply of fresh eggs, and the neighbourhood ponies will be more than happy to take care of your “not quite right” apples and carrots. It is truly astounding how much human food is poured down the throats of production animals each year. According to the US EPA 80% of the corn, 22% of the wheat and 30 million tons of soybean meal end up as feed for livestock (http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/cropmajor.html). Given how incredibly wasteful meat production is wouldn’t it be more efficient to provide this food directly to people, or at least feed the animals with some of the millions of tons of food that end up in land fill? I am not necessarily advocating that we all become vegetarian but I do think we could put a bit more effort into consuming our over abundant native species, such as kangaroos, that are being culled anyway and have far less of an environmental impact.

It is consumers that have generated the current culture of waste and it is up to us to turn it around.

Dr. F. Bunny

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