You are what you don’t eat: let’s talk food waste

Worldwide, a third of all food is thrown away and never eaten. That’s about 1.3 billion tonnes every year. But it’s all too easy to shrug off a statistic. 

It’s not your fault, you say, it’s the big businesses – there’s nothing you can do! 

Until you find out that half of all food waste in developed countries is at the level of the consumer, that is. Half of all food waste, coming out of our homes. Whether it be that banana you let go brown in the fruit bowl or those leftovers that hung around just a bit too long in the back of the fridge, food waste is fast becoming a normality. It’s a mere fact of life in this convenience-based world we’ve built. But it is a social and ecological disaster, and it’s time to put our collective foot down.

Food waste is a modern problem. 50 years ago, people had a completely different attitude to wastage and consumerism – these were the ‘waste not want not’ generations, who couldn’t afford to throw away perfectly edible food. Food shopping accounts for a much smaller percentage of the average wage today, and those who can afford to waste food do. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that our perceived value of food decreases after it goes in the fridge. So even that punnet of strawberries you simply couldn’t resist in the supermarket begins its destined journey for the bin as soon as you place it in the ice-cold grip of your refrigerator. Strawberries, I’d like to add, that was shipped all the way up to Edinburgh from Spain, and subjected to ridiculously high appearance standards to boot. Think of all the resources wasted, just for them to be cast aside.

There seems to be a widespread and commonly-accepted frivolity when it comes to clearing out the fridge, especially given that the average consumer is totally clueless when it comes to use-by and best-before dates. Repeat with me: use-by dates are for products that are dangerous if left too long, like meats, eggs, and dairy; best-before dates are for products which are never dangerous to consume but might lose their flavour over time, like spices and dried goods.

But what’s actually wrong with wasting food, if you have the money to do it? Let’s start with the environment. It takes about 2400 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, 244 gallons to produce a pound of tofu, and 15 gallons to produce a pound of lettuce. Admittedly, that’s quite a range, but even 15 gallons is still far too much of a precious resource to throw away absentmindedly. 

Not only that but to meet our unrealistic expectation that supermarket shelves be stocked with unseasonal food year-round, crops have to travel halfway across the world. And those crops, not to mention livestock, take up inordinate amounts of land; all that food that never gets eaten could grow on an area of land bigger than China. 

The water, the fossil fuels, the land – that’s a lot of resources going towards food that may never get eaten. There are a lot of people who don’t have access to clean water, and we’re 12 years away from the point of environmental no return. We can’t afford to keep wasting the Earth’s limited resources on food we’re not using.

On a social level, roughly 10 per cent of the world don’t have enough food to live; that’s a horrific statistic if you think about how much excess food we throw away in the developed world. In fact, the one billion hungry people in the world could be adequately fed on just a quarter of the perfectly good food wasted in the US and Europe combined. So why do we persistently turn the other cheek to world hunger, when there’s already more than enough food being produced for our ever-growing population? 

By 2050, the population is predicted to have increased by 2.3 billion people – and we’re producing enough food today for all of them. But by continuing our wasteful habits, we’re setting ourselves in for a 60-70 per cent increase in global food production by then.

Never fear though: food waste initiatives are abound in the modern world. There are a lot of ways you can do your bit and stop contributing to the mass squandering of the world’s resources. Apps like OLIO and Too Good To Go help find new homes for perfectly good food that can’t be finished. Businesses – such as the student’s beloved Pret – partner with the apps to help re-home food that otherwise has to be thrown away at the end of the day. OLIO even helps reduce food waste in the home by giving ordinary people a platform to share leftover food with their neighbours. You don’t even have to leave the house! Just pop your leftovers on OLIO and wait for a neighbour to pick up their newly-discovered treasure.

Even if you can’t get rid of your unwanted food, you can at least put your food scraps to good use. While in landfill old food gets buried and releases toxic gases as it breaks down anaerobically, composting it can return it to nature without poisoning the planet. If you’ve not got a green thumb or any use for compost, the kerbside food waste collection bins picked up by Edinburgh Council go towards producing renewable energy that goes back into the National Grid, giving unwanted food a new life and purpose. 

Even so, it’s important to remember that anti-food waste campaigns are at odds with the renewable energy initiative, and even though you’re reusing it, saving your edible food for the food waste bin is still exactly that – waste. So if you can find a way to donate anything edible, and save the food waste bins for eggshells and onion peels, that’s the real solution.

There’s still time to turn food waste issues around. We need a collective conscience around consumer waste and an understanding of the damage we’re doing. The out of sight out of mind attitude we have towards the bin is formidable, and it’s unsustainable for our planet and our people. With a little bit of discipline, we could do wonders. With a little bit of imagination, we could change the world.

 

Image: Hannah Robinson

 

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The Student Newspaper 2016