This week in AWR, I will be exploring a topic that is particularly close to home – food waste. It is a topic I feel passionately about and, it is a topic that intersects with a multiplicity of issues. I will argue that food waste is a symptom of a wider cultural paranoia that has infected not just Britain, but the Western world as a whole.
A big issue
In 2015, we in the UK produced 4.4 million tonnes of avoidable food waste. Note that it was 4.4 million tonnes of avoidable waste; food that could and should have been consumed. Indeed, this equates to £13 billion worth of food waste. So, the average UK household wasted £470 each year on avoidable food waste. The statistics are all the more staggering when you realise that food bank usage is on the rise in this country. Something has definitely gone off!
In addition to the monetary value lost by each UK household, food waste also means that unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions are put in the atmosphere. Supposedly, over its lifetime, food waste has produced 19 million tonnes of extra greenhouse gas emissions. Removing this from the atmosphere would be the equivalent of removing 1 in 4 cars from the roads.
One can also assume that a healthy portion of the 4.4 million tonnes of avoidable food waste came in plastic packaging. Indeed, this means there was a proportionate number of avoidable plastic that entered the environment. This kind of flagrant use of resources is unsustainable and something needs to change. Clearly, food waste is an issue which affects a number of other social problems and so it should be at the top of our agenda in issues to solve.
Whose fault is it?
Recently, the government tasked the food industry with tackling this issue. It was hoped that the food industry would reduce the amount of avoidable food waste in a year. One can see why it is their responsibility too: ‘Use by’, ‘Sell by’ and, ‘Best before’ labels contribute to the uninformed purchases of the public and have a huge effect on the amount of food that goes in the bin. In particular, ‘Sell by’ labels which are totally arbitrary dates used to make sure the consumer eats the product promptly and goes back to the shops for more. So, is the food industry to blame?
What about our convoluted and bureaucratic legal system? Returning to food packaging labels, these arbitrary dates are used as a safety net for big companies in order to prevent speculative lawsuits from amoral customers. You just can’t trust anyone not to sue in this day and age. Our society has developed along a path that means we cannot give food to the starving and the homeless because of food hygiene standards and fears of a desperate lawsuit. The hospitality industry is particularly guilty in producing huge amounts of food waste, is that specific industry to blame or is it the effect our legal system has on this industry?
Wider cultural paranoia
I would argue that attempting to blame a particular industry for the unacceptable amounts of food waste produced in this country is a way of absolving ourselves of the blame. The reason we produce so much food waste is that we have developed a cultural paranoia over leftover food, this paranoia comes as a symptom of unfounded beliefs on good hygiene and illness.
Nowadays we throw full pots of jam in the bin because a small amount of mould has appeared on the top. The proper solution to this, the solution our grandparents would have practised, is to scrape the mould off and tuck in!
Nowadays we have ‘Use by’ dates on tinned food so that we know when the tightly sealed tin has been contaminated by outside influence!? Tinned foods have been proven to last decades, if not centuries!
We have completely divorced ourselves from the senses that served us so well for millennia, the senses that brought our ancestors out of the dark ages – sight and smell. Rather than looking at and smelling the food we have in our fridge, we simply read an arbitrary label before deciding if it is edible or not. This is our cultural paranoia, we are unable to make a decision based on our own senses. We, in a way, are no longer functioning humans anymore, we are merely humans that function.
To put the issue simply, one-third of the world is obese and one-third of the world is malnourished. The former, which typically reside in the West is eating the latter’s food. Not only are they eating their food but they are also throwing it away. Something needs to change.
Don’t listen to me
Seriously, don’t listen to me. In my ideal society, there would be no labels on foods indicating when they should be eaten. Instead, humans would be forced to learn fast or get sick trying. In my ideal society, those who walk around restaurants picking up scraps of food left by other customers would not be shamed as social pariahs. Instead, they would be glorified as model human beings.
So, next time you go in your fridge and notice that your parmesan is slightly out of date, don’t throw it away. It’s cheese, it lasts forever.
Written by Finn Grant