Waste not, want not is how the old saying goes. The proverbial ideology that if one were to utilize commodity or resource in a wise manner, they will have enough in the long run. And in theory, it makes sense.
However, in an era where suppliers are racing to meet the heightening demands of Western consumers, mama’s motto is lost in the dust. We want more; the bigger the better. Yet as we have the privileged access to a stocked fridge and fast ready meals at our greasy fingertips, we take it for granted, rabidly chewing a whole lot more than we can swallow.
Research analysts have discovered that approximately one third of food produced around the world goes uneaten. That’s 1.3 billion tons that is lost or tossed in the dump every year. (source: FAO.org)
The United States alone wastes up to 40% of their food, about 60 million metric tons of food that is tossed yearly, with an estimated value of $162 billion. About 40 million metric tons of it end up in municipal landfills, at a cost of about $1.5 billion a year to local governments.
But how can this be the case when we love food so damn much?
Cuisine is universally adored: the colours, the textures, that sensation when you take your first bite and the way it melts in your mouth. A simple search of #FoodPorn on your Insta feed shows it’s evidently one of the most religiously used hashtags on the app; from photos of carefully arranged sushi, Mile-high Mississippi Mud Pie to a basket of crispy nachos. We applaud champions who can tackle the conquest of finishing a hyper-massive meal in one lick on reality TV shows.
With food, there’s a love-hate relationship going on.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the food discarded by retailers and consumers in the most developed countries would be four times the amount needed to feed all of the world’s 870 million hungry people.
A few years ago the Natural Resource Defense Council released a report regarding the issue. “American families throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy” the report says. “Cheap, available food has created behaviors that do not place high value on utilizing what is purchased. As a result, the issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environment -or cost conscious. Enticed by impulse buys, sales and savings by buying in bulk, Americans simply buy more food than they can eat,” the report says.
The average size of the U.S. dinner plate is 36% bigger now than it was in 1960.
It’s as if we have this mindless fascination for food and all it’s glory but don’t respect and value it, the way we should. Older generations did. According to NRDC, a study conducted in 1987 found that people over 65, many of whom lived through either the Great Depression or World War II, wasted half as much food as other age groups.
Incoming generations of wealthier nations commonly see food as a disposable commodity because it’s available by the plentiful, and there’s an unsaid entitlement we have that incites a disturbing causality between the starving and the stuffed.
Not only do we romanticize food and ridiculous portions, there is much emphasis on it’s aesthetic value as well. Much so, that when a tomato doesn’t meet “beauty standards” of being bright red, round and juicy we deem it inedible.
(On the image: Fruits and vegetables judged ugly by mass market retailers – October, 2015)
Beauty standards for FOOD?? Yup, you heard it right: The conditioned ideal of picture- perfect produce is a serious problem, since supermarkets end up throwing away or rejecting a sizable fraction due to it’s cosmetic imperfections.
In 2013, UK retailer Tesco revealed 56,580 tons of food were wasted in its stores and distribution centres in 2013/14. This includes 40% of all apples and just under half of bakery items sold. A quarter of grapes are wasted between the vine and the fruit bowl and a fifth of all bananas are unused. 68% of bagged salads are thrown out.
Fruits and veggies are evaluated in size, shape and colour and those that don’t make the cut are discarded. The competitive market also forces growers to cull the crops they do harvest, removing produce with simple blemishes or other cosmetic defects like bruising, pecks or clementines that look like butt cheeks.
Not only does this profligate epidemic not add up both ethically and economically, there’s an environmental factor as well. All this food loss and waste is contributing to climate change since needless over production is guilty to excessive squandering of resources including water, land, energy, labour and greenhouse emissions. The damaging effects of production is done for absolutely nada and it doesn’t stop there:
Most food waste is thrown away in landfills, where it decomposes and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Globally, it creates 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, about 7 percent of the total emissions, according to the NRDC report. 10% of rich countries’ greenhouse gas emissions come from growing food that is never eaten.
So, it’s clear that a major shift must occur. There’s already been some talking going on, France passed a new food waste bill, retailers like Tesco vow to reduce the waste, there’s been a spark of new initiatives and documentaries are shining light on the moral dilemma which may possibly be the root of all evil.
In Amsterdam, I learned of a fantastic community called Guerilla Kitchen. The collective consists of volunteers who gather produce and food that would have otherwise gone to waste, transforming it into a giant meal that’s equally nutritious and delicious. Every week they host a Food Waste Feast, cooking up a storm to feed Amsterdam bellies and donations go to causes like the Aid Delivery Mission and Bellies Beyond Borders. In Europe, there is a growing food share culture, where folks can scout out leftover produce and baked goods from markets at sundown, bringing home as much as they can carry. Ideally, North Americans will soon follow suit.
It’s crucial that we re-evaluate this habitual lifestyle of shameless disposal and recognize there are people dying, for God’s sake. Until the whole of this increasing global population is sufficiently fed, there is no reason for produce to be put on an imaginary pedestal to match our false perception of “acceptable” eye candy. Grocery chains need to get their act together and establish an efficient system that minimizes excess and distributes leftovers to those in need. If you aren’t already finishing everything on your plate, you better start getting used to it and assert this cardinal rule to your children.
Willful waste may not bring woeful want to you but it does for the East African child whose protruding rib cage should be enough to make you sick to your stomach.
Undoing this damage will take time but if we collectively put efforts forward in eradicating this expendable culture where overconsumption meets lack thereof, we are that much closer to feeding the world.
So quit playing with your food already.
—words by Maya Amoah. Cover image by Richard Bosomworth/Getty.