Imagine living in a closed room with seven other people.
One of the people in the room is malnourished and constantly hungry, another two are doing only slightly better.
But one of the other people in the room is much richer and more powerful than all the rest, and eats much more than everyone else – so much in fact that they are overweight and unhealthy.
The rich person is also very wasteful. Sometimes they hoard so much food for themselves that it goes rotten before they can eat it. They also throw perfectly good food away – more than enough to feed the hungry people.
Of course the earth is a closed room, and the gross unfairness of our current food system is clearer to see when we imagine just a roomful of people, rather than the world’s billions.
The scenario above comes from the book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristam Stuart, which disturbingly asserts that there is much, much more food grown in the world every year than needed to adequately feed everyone – but that the system we have for distributing this food is grossly unfair, resulting in hundreds of millions being left short of food and hungry.
The starkest illustration of this is in the food wasted in the world’s richest countries daily.
Some estimates put the total wastage of food produced as high as 50% or more – wasted by farmers, by processors, by wholesale distributors, by retailers, by restaurants and, of course, by us the consumer.
The causes are many and complex: we expect perfect quality (so cosmetically inferior produce is rejected), sell-by and use-by dates are often overly strict (often being based on preserving brand quality, rather than being derived on a health basis), we too frequently over-purchase (two for one offers, super-sized meals etc) and have a lack of imagination or desire to use our ‘left-overs’.
But the real problem is our attitude to food – in our own ‘rich worlds of plenty’, endless consumer choice and supermarket abundance, we seem to have lost touch with the real value of food ?
Throwing perfectly good food away is such a tremendous waste – not only of the food itself, but also of the fuel and energy, water, packaging, carbon emissions, pesticides and fertilizers, all used to grow, process, package, transport, store, and sell it, as well as dispose of the waste. There’s also the waste of land farmed to grow food for no purpose.
Throwing perfectly good food away while people are starving across the world is morally indefensible, but of course we can’t simply send the majority of our uneaten food to where it’s needed, it’s more complex than that.
Many foodstuffs are now traded internationally as commodities, from wheat to apples, pork to cooking oil. With increasing competition for food globally, as a result rising population, an increasing taste for Western style diets in several developing nations, rising energy costs, and even honey bee decline, the market rates are steadily increasing. Everyone in the world has been noticing the increase in the cost of the food they buy – the difference is that most of us in the rich world are lucky enough to be able to afford to pay for it, while the world’s poorest are increasingly unable to properly feed their families! If the rich world bought less food from the global markets, there would be more left, and at lower prices, for the world’s hungry.
What can we do ?
Buy only what we need.
Be less fussy about the appearance of what we buy.
Make sure we use all that we buy.
There are many ways we can do this – planning our meals better, being more mindful when shopping, getting better at managing our fridges and storing food, making better use of leftovers and managing our portion sizes better.
It’s not about finishing what’s on your plate – it’s about only buying, cooking and serving what we really need.
If we need even more motivation to ‘do the right thing’, we might also want to bear in mind that buying and wasting food also wastes our money !
“He that gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples, had thereby a property in them, they were his goods as soon as gathered. He was only to look, that he used them before they spoiled, else he took more than his share and robbed others”.
John Locke the Father of Libralism
[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]