Scrape Your Plate

177 - Food Waste

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.

The stability and security implications for a country that can’t provide enough food for a large proportion of its population should be obvious.

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]

Photo Image used under Creative Commons License from Nick Saltmarsh, via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES - Moving Mountains: Hunger and Waste in an Age of AusterityPlay Nice and Share, How Hungry are you Right Now ? , GROW for Food Justice 


  1. Great post; food waste is one of my passions as, like you, I feel it has to be morally wrong to throw away food while some of our neighbours starve. Growing a little of my own food has opened my eyes to the energy within foods and it’s made me much more mindful of the real value of food. When I consider the time, the water, the tending that it takes to grow something it makes me think twice before throwing anything away.

    The simple switch of only putting a small amount on your plate, then going back for more (rather than piling it high and not getting through it) means todays leftovers can become tomorrow ingredients… Good for the environment and your pocket…

    • Thank you Green :)

      I think we all have a special relationship with food – eating is one of the most basic pleasures there is.

      As you say, the food we eat can help connect us back to the natural world – I do sense there is an increasing movement of awareness and interest in food and where it comes from etc . . . long may that continue.

      In September I’m going to see how I get on having a vegetarian diet for a month, and it looks like the family will join me (to a large extent) – like the Below The Line Challenge I did a few months ago, these things do make you think more about what you’re eating.

      I do like reading your blog by the way – I thought the idea of sending packaging back to manufacturers in your Return to Sender post was great :)

  2. Gareth Richards says:

    I’m surprised they didn’t mention the vast quantities of food turned into fuel to feed our cars. Anything we don’t waste may be turned into fuel.

    • Tristram does cover both biofuels and biogas in his book, his relevant chapter titles being: – Reduce: Food is for Eating – Redistribute: The Gleaners – Recycle: Compost and Gas, and he adopts a fairly straightforward waste-hierarchy approach.

      The issue of agri-industrial energy-crop production has become one of the hot-button issues for many environmentalists – it’s just not an efficient way of producing vehicle fuel, once the water, fertilizers & pesticides and processing have been considered. Broadly speaking many would argue that using good farmland to produce vehicle fuel when people are starving in the world is perverse. Energy-crop cultivation in the US has become very significant, but relatively little currently takes place in Europe – the debate rages:

      I too have very negative views regarding large scale energy-crop production, but use of waste food, sewage and anything else we can’t find a better use for to convert into energy in some way is obviously a great idea.

      Your water company is one of the largest renewable energy producers within the M25 – and you’re providing the fuel !

      One thing I’d definitely like to see is more opportunity for local scale biogas generation from anearobic digestion. It’s increasingly popular in parts of Europe, the UK is lagging behind, but Government is now supporting the concept:

      I’ll write something about bio-diesel and bio-gas at some point – I think it’s quite interesting and generally not well understood.

      • Gareth Richards says:

        One of your assumptions is if we waste less food, we will need less and the price will go down enabling the poor to buy more.

        But if the price goes down farmers will grow less, until the incentive is there for them to grow more. The unfortunate solution to food waste is to charge more for food.

        • I think that’s an important point you make – and I half agree with it.

          But it’s not food waste that’s the real (moral) problem, but starving people.

          There is plenty of desperate demand for food. Yet the world can and does produce enough – there is enough supply. The problem is the inability of the world’s hungry poor to pay for it.

          This is where the current global food system breaks down. Food production and distribution is not driven by global need, but by market demand – very different things.

          The question is: if demand for food in the rich world decreases (as less food is wasted), does the availability of lower priced food in poor countries increase (even if less food in total is produced in the world)? I think the answer is yes.

          It’s a complex interchange and I wouldn’t want to pretend other wise – it’s really not a single monolithic global food market, but many interlinked markets. No one thing is going to provide a simple fix. Farmers in poor countries grow cash crops for export to the rich world like coffee, soy or beef, even though people are starving in their own countries. Many farmers in rich countries find it more profitable to grow fuel for cars than use the land to grow food. The current trade arrangements, with tariffs, subsidies, favoured trading nation status, market dumping and quotas are clearly not working for around one in seven of us.

          Oxfam’s view is that greater resilience and efficiency needs to be generated in local farming communities in the global south, to reduce these communities reliance on global markets – their GROW manifesto discusses this and is an interesting read: I’m not a global food expert by any means, but it makes sense to me.

          If we don’t waste or needlessly consume food, then the market effects will be varied – of course, you’re right that if demand decreases some producers will switch production to something else. But for others their food will remain on the global market to be sold for a lower price, and more accessible to the poor. In addition some producers in the global south will stop producing cash crops for export to the rich world, and switch back to growing locally edible crops. There might be less food produced in the world, but more of it will end-up in the mouths of hungry people !

          I’m certainly not arguing being a bit more frugal in our fridges and on our plates will feed all the world’s hungry – but I do believe it will help . . . which is very much the basis of this site – Our actions can and do make a difference :)

  3. I didn’t mention the other key issue in global food security – meat consumption !

    I’ll be writing a full post of the implications and issues associated with eating meat shortly – and (as a meat eater) – will also be trying a vegetarian diet for a period of time . . .

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