Sunday, 27 January 2013

A Controversial Post about Vegetables

First published on (updated)

It may not seem a risky topic, but the rate at which we are wasting food is nothing less than scandalous. Our grossly wasteful attitude to food in parts of the world, set against starvation and periodic famine in others, has made food waste the quiet scandal of the decade.

A recent BBC article reported that up to half of the food we produce is simply thrown away. Worldwide. The waste of North Americans and Europeans, says another report, could feed the world's hungry several times over.

This makes for uncomfortable reading on all sides. Those on the political right are naturally suspicious of criticisms of the free market. Those on the left may find the implications of these studies unpalatable.

The numbers are breathtaking - not least the emotive juxtaposition of a billion underfed people with a billion suffering from 'over-nutrition'. On paper it looks intensely inefficient, seems morally repugnant and is adding unnecessarily to our already out-of-control emissions. So, what can we do about it? This depends, of course, on where the waste occurs.

The first 'wave' of wastage is during production. "In-situ culls" of crops occur in the field and involve rejection of produce that doesn't look very nice

If market prices shift drastically - as oft they do - it can even be cheaper for farmers to let entire crops rot rather than harvest them. This 'pre-harvest shrink' is an unfortunate feature of the free market. In the US, volunteers pick some produce and distribute it to food banks - but this is near-impossible to institutionalise.

And this all occurs before industrial processing. For an average person's daily 2,000 kcal, an additional 600kcal gets wasted here. If crops are used to produce animal feed for meat or dairy, that figure doubles to 1,200 kcal.

A second 'wave' of waste happens in-store. Here, says campaigner Tristam Stewart, is where activism really kicks in. Consumer pressure can change supermarket behaviour. M&S reduced their food waste by a whopping 40% over a three-year period after being persuaded to discount near-expiry stock.

Organisations such as Foodcycle and Stewart's own group, Feeding the 5,000, are another way to get involved in campaigning. The transparent reporting of waste at this stage is a crucial campaign goal, says Stewart.

The final 'wave' of wastage happens at home. Huge quantities of food are bought and them simply thrown away. Incredibly, over half - 4.4m tonnes annually - is still perfectly edible. Vegetables, especially salad, are often thrown out unnecessarily. Much of this 'excess food' could be saved simply by using common sense, adjusting cooking habits and employing a bit of imagination

So, to ask the question again: what can we do about it? The picture is very different in other parts of the world, but here in the West, there are inefficiencies at every stage of the production line.

During harvest, stock is wasted due to aesthetics or market prices. This quite simply needs government regulation at national (or supranational) level. That, in turn, must be supported - indeed, demanded - by the public.

At the point of sale, we need businesses to take a lead. Supermarkets can reduce waste by reducing prices close to sell-by dates; charities can take stock that would be otherwise disposed of and distribute it. Our role, as consumers, is to tell businesses this matters to us. One need only look at Fairtrade to see the impact consumer demand makes. We need to keep the pressure on.

Finally, we need to become more conscientious about how we buy, store and cook our food. The humble shopping list can make a remarkable difference. Imaginative cooking saves money and produces delicious meals. Sensible storage can stop bread, fruit and vegetables from going off.

In short, shocking as the scale of waste is, it's a scandal that really does start at home. It's a scandal that we can combat through the daily choices we make. It's also an issue which we - and only we - can really push up the political and corporate agenda.

The scandal may be global, but overcoming it really is our responsibility as individuals - and we might even save money and have some fun in the process.

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