I recently read a book called ‘Waste‘ by Tristram Stuart. I found it in the Do The Green Thing office and flicked straight to the glossy pictures in the middle. Brightly coloured images jumped out at me that on closer inspection I found to be HUGE piles of food. I’m talking thousands and thousands of bananas, so many oranges I can’t even begin to imagine how many there were and tumbling piles of courgettes. All food that would never be eaten, all left to rot away in the ground, in landfill and in rivers. All wasted.
Those pictures were a good hook. I slipped the book into my bag and started to read it on the tube home that night. Stuart and his wife are Freegans. Their diet has been dictated by the abundance of food he has found in bins for the past 5 years or so. I know what you’re thinking, and he did too. Which is why he was quick to point out that neither he nor his wife have become ill from eating binned food. Why? Well the simple truth is that most food that is thrown away from shops and supermarkets isn’t bad or gone off. It’s chucked due to over-cautious ‘best before’ dates, new stock arriving and the consumers need to see shelves full of produce. Stuart estimates that humans throw away between a quarter to a half of all food produced. And this time it’s not so easy to just blame it on politicians and big brands. Don’t get me wrong, they are not innocent in all this but as consumers, we demand choice, we prefer perfection and we like to see our stores stocked full to give us the illusion of choice.
(Image: Tristram Stuart)
Reading ‘Waste’ made me instantly conscious of every morsel of food I was binning, every pasta dish that I over estimated, every carrot that went off before I ate it (which incidentally is most of them at the moment. Every time I put a carrot in the cupboard, I return half an hour later and its black!).
Stuart had definately done his research. He pulled apart every report and analysed every figure. At times I found it hard to keep up with his percentages and the switch between currencies but I trusted him, he seemed to know what he was talking about, I didn’t have to follow every percentage exactly. There were some figures that were easier to digest however:
Each year in Britain we waste 1.6 billion apples. That’s 27 apples that each person individually throws away. We throw away 484m unopened yoghurts and chuck 2.6 billion slices of bread. Some of these may have gone off, others we just throw away because we’ve bought a newer apple.
Food manufacturers are just as callous. Marks and Spencers demand that the crust and the first slice of bread be thrown away from every loaf that makes their sandwiches. They condemn 13,000 slices of bread to landfill every day. All for the sake of cosmetics.
And why is it sent to landfill and not used as animal feed? Because pigs are no longer allowed to eat swill. No potato peelings, no stale bread, no sour milk. Since the food and mouth epidemic it has been illegal. It even carries a two year prison sentence.
Ok. So we waste food. So what? We grow more right? Who does it affect anyway?
Lots of people apparently. Stuart calculated that just 25% of the amount of food we waste from picking to eating in the US and Europe could feed the worlds billion starving people. Of course, we all know that the ignored brussel sprouts left on your plate wouldn’t be sent to the starving Africans as our mothers would have us believe but due to the Western worlds increasing demand for fully stocked shelves and perfect looking bread, we are buying more and more wheat and corn from countries that consequently can’t feed their own.
The book is packed with facts and figures that completely alter your perceptions of food waste, with the loud message that our food waste causes 10% of the world’s CO2 emissions. I find that astonishing. But when you take into account all the land used, the food miles and the chemicals required to grow supermarket-suitable food, all for it just to be chucked into the bin, it isn’t that surprising.
Stuart has covered every angle and challenged every argument. In terms of material, the book is superb and I would suggest that if you have the opportunity then cast your eye over ‘Waste’. A word of warning though. Stuart doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable character. A possible major downfall in his quest to change the way the world deals with its food. As a slightly supercilious and insensitive man, his message will quite possibly miss those who should hear it and may be persuaded to change their ways and land on the ears of the already converted.
It has made me more cautious about my quick-to-rot carrots though.