Moving Mountains: Hunger and Waste in an Age of Austerity

Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin. She loves learning German, birdwatching and travelling by train, in between working as a  writer. A keen environmentalist, Natalie writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail. 

One grim irony – and there are many – of the international debt crisis, aside from the obvious problems of limitless growth within finite resources, is that despite global attempts at austerity, waste continues to occur at unimaginable levels.

Italy, for example, whose debt mountain is the second largest in Europe, wastes over 30 per cent of its food, which works out at about $53 million. Reducing waste certainly won’t be the dynamite that blows a hole through that mountain of debt, which is a mind-boggling €240bn this year alone, but it will make a small dent, and surely save as much as some other individual austerity measures already suggested or implemented. It is not just Italy where this happens.  The US wastes the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil a year in uneaten food.  In the UK, half the food produced on farms is thrown away, amounting to an eye-watering £20bn food mountain.

So why does such waste happen?

Firstly, consumers are led by omnipotent advertisers to believe that appearance is an indicator of quality. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation advises people to consider safety, nutrition and taste of food rather than the way it looks. An outrageous amount of perfectly edible produce gets discarded daily because it looks ‘off’, or in other words, not the technicolour stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing in ads (and on the shelves). That freegans can survive almost solely on the contents of skips outside supermarkets is testament to the senseless waste that occurs in the name of aesthetics. In addition, consumers are urged to buy much more than they need, whether it be larger portion sizes in restaurants or two-for-one offers in shops.  Financial efficiency has been so misaligned that it actually became, in many cases, cheaper to waste food than to just buy what was needed.

In the end, of course, just as with homes, loans and everything else, there comes a point when the bubble bursts.

The sudden gaping hole, never invisible but until now ignored,  between the abstract ‘market’ and concrete reality threatens to swallow us all. We can no longer afford to waste. Food, money, resources, time are all precious and we must use them wisely.  This is arguably more important right now than ever before.

Instead of amending or fixing the system that got us into this mess, it seems like those in charge are building it up again identically, brick by brick; taking back their abusive but irresistible lover, hoping this time things’ll be different.

The waste that uncapped capitalism encourages continues, as does environmental degradation and widening social inequality.  That people in Somalia (and across the developing world, for that matter) starve to death in droves while Italy alone wastes  food that could produce 580 million meals a year is nothing short of obscene. “Try asking those people trekking across the Somali wastelands what austerity looks like.” Dan Hodges movingly blogged, asking why, in our modern world,  people can still starve to death. It’s certainly not for moral or logistical reasons, he points out, and if we can fund humanitarian intervention in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, then why not Africa?

Sadly, I’d argue that it’s because we’re rebuilding a broken machine, one that is self-interested and self-governing.

There is undoubtedly aid ready to go into Somalia, but without governments providing security in this volatile region, there is no way to safely get it to those who need it. The bottomless pockets of cash that were available for Iraq and Afghanistan have mysteriously dried up.

Is it too cynical to assume that this is because Somalia, unlike the Middle East, has few natural resources worth exploiting?

Similar articles – Play Nice and Share, Scrape Your Plate

Photo by Sporkist, via Flickr