Why wasting food should be as unacceptable as throwing litter
by Alicia Lawson, Director of Rubies in the Rubble
In the past couple of years, the media has been awash with shocking statistics about just how much food we throw away.
To cite just a few of them: if food waste were a country, its carbon footprint would be the second largest on the planet. Food that is never eaten uses up 1.4 billion hectares of land (quarter of the area of the entire Amazon rainforest), and could feed the world’s hungry 3 times over.
The big question, then, is this: why do we still waste so much food?
We turn off the lights, we dutifully put out recycling bins, and wouldn’t be seen dead chucking a carton in the gutter.
Yet, time and again, we’ve all seen (and at the swankiest of functions, attended by our most upstanding citizens) mounds of catered delicacies lying untouched, waiters clearing away half eaten plates, or our own families at home, scraping leftovers straight into the bin – all without any social stigma whatsoever.
Connecting people to the issue is key if we are to start really tackling the problem. Yet for some reason, throwing food away just doesn’t seem to be something that people consider in the same way as other environmental issues. Take littering. Can you remember the last time you deliberately littered? Whether it’s a countryside field, a park, or an urban street, the idea of lobbing a plastic bottle over a fence just isn’t something, thank goodness, which our society feels comfortable with. The stigma alone is enough of a deterrent.
Is this because food waste isn’t a visible blight on our landscapes? If we chuck an apple over a fence, we imagine it decomposing gently into the soil – serving as nutritious compost. Unlike a plastic bottle, we don’t picture it lying there for eternity, leaching chemicals into the ground or choking unsuspecting seagulls.
Perhaps it is because the messaging around ‘litterbugs’ is so straightforward. The familiar adage ‘Respect the environment. Don’t throw litter’ doesn’t just forbid us to litter; it also states why we shouldn’t. It links the single action with the wider global picture, immediately causing the would-be litterbug to consider the direct consequences of their action, and offering them a reason to care.
But when a parent tells their child to finish what’s on their plate, because there are other children like them without anything to eat at all, it’s difficult for the child, (and let’s be honest, probably the parent too) to visualise exactly how wasting that last piece of broccoli affects the millions of malnourished children around the world.
The difficulty with food waste is that its real environmental damage is created through its production, not its disposal.
It’s hard to connect wasting food with the damage it causes, because by the time it’s on your plate, the damage has already been done.
Pasta, for example, is a cheap, low value staple – and a classic case of an often wasted food, due to miscalculated portion sizes. Yet the water required to grow the wheat to make just 75g (one serving) of dry pasta, is 140 litres. When you next scrape a plate of cold pasta into the bin, instead try and imagine literally pouring two bathfuls of water down the drain. Imagining where your food has come from is a better deterrent than imagining where it’s going to end up.
For animals bred for meat, water consumption is even higher. Fed with corn grown specifically to feed them, every kilo of beef has required 15,415 litres of water. Then consider that over 50% of all food in the UK is imported, and you can add however many miles worth of fuel into the equation. Suddenly, binning an 8oz steak that’s past it’s Sell By is equivalent to flushing away 87 bathfuls of water, leaving your car engine running for half an hour, and destroying some nearby wildlife while you’re at it (to allow for the deforestation required to graze animals and grow animal feed).
And these resources – this water, feed, and fuel that fed and led the beef to your bin – will have been used in vain in a country where many may not have access to them. Wasting Kenya-imported mangetout also means wasting Kenyan water supplies.
In a society which increasingly understands less and less about where our food comes from, and what effort, time, money, land, oxygen and biodiversity go into making it, it’s important to try to make that imaginary backwards connection, and remember the wider picture.
If we can make that connection, there is no reason why our attitude towards wasting good food should be any different from our attitudes about recycling plastic, or littering. And these are new concepts. Our grandparents may have left the lights on, but they would never have bought a steak and then forgotten to eat it in time. Somehow, in the last sixty years, it has become acceptable in the developed world to see food as disposable, easily bought and easily binned. But the resources that go into it are anything but replaceable.