NaNoWriMo Day 26: The Food We Throw Away

My grandmother is very careful with her food. She won’t throw anything away. She experienced the war, didn’t have enough to eat for so long. That stays a vital part of how she makes decisions concerning food.

Nowadays, we have lost our connection to the food we consume. There are less people in agriculture than ever before. We are moving into the cities, are not confronted with the life on the land anymore. We don’t see our food grow, we don’t know how it is made. Furthermore, there is an incredible abundance of it through technology and globalisation. Our demand has changed. In Europe, we could get strawberries and asparagus in winter. I always looked forward to the time when there are these two products available again in our region in April. Now, you can have them all year! Thats has horrifying consequences.

Children grow up in a world where they can get anything to eat at any time. In most of Europe and North America, you can have food items from all over the world just sitting on your supermarket shelf. We don’t consider where they come from anymore. Sometimes, it’s cheaper to import products from other countries than to buy them locally. There are carrots from Israel and apples from New Zealand and South Africa! We grow apples here in Germany! Why import them? What is wrong with this whole system?

1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year. That’s a third of global food production. 1/3!!! In Europe and North America, we throw away around 100 kg of food per capita per year. In sub-saharan Africa and parts of Asia, that’s only 6-11 kg. Something is clearly going wrong here. We have lost the connection to our food.

Food lost in Europe could feed 200 million people, in Africa 300 million and in Latin America also 300 million! We could solve our global starvation problem if we wouldn’t throw away that much anymore.

Why is it lost?

“In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.”

What is lost? 30% of the cereals grown, 20% of dairy products produced, 35% of fish and seafood, 45% of fruit and vegetables, 20% of the meat, 20% of oilseeds and pulses and 45% of roots and tubers. Now look… For our production of cereals, vegetables and fruits we need considerably less energy and water than for the whole dairy and meat industry. Therefore, the numbers for these products are so much more tragic.

“The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km3) is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva. (…) Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28 percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted.”

Where does all this wasted food land? On the landfill. We had a lovely module last semester, Sustainable Waste Management. We did an experiment on anaerobic landfilling of organic compounds. A lot of gas is produced in there. Guess which one? Methane. A greenhouse gas 23 times as bad for our atmosphere as CO2. Congrats to us, humans. We do not only waste water, land, work, money etc on food we throw away, we contribute further to climate change by where we throw it.

I talked a lot about our relationship with the oceans, too, in the last weeks. The by-catch rates for sea fish are 1:20 up to 1:50. That’s the amount of fish that is caught. So take that one kilo and throw the other 20-50kg back in the oceans. If the fish reaches the supermarket or you as a consumer, again 35% of it is lost! We are killing the wildlife in our oceans, destroying the balances of whole ecosystems to in the end we throw it all away?!
If these numbers aren’t shocking enough yet, let’s look into the issues a little deeper.

Tackling the issue of food waste, there are three aspects we need to consider. 1. From the field to the supermarket. 2. From the supermarket to our homes. 3. From our homes into the trash.

1. From the Field to the Supermarket.

We watched the documentary “Taste the Waste” in our study course a few weeks ago. There was a potato farmer who explained his work. The potatoes are checked if they have the right size, colour and shape. Every single one of them which doesn’t fit these parameters is thrown back onto the field. To rot.

In other countries, the harvesting machines might be not efficient enough and some food is wasted there. That problem can be fixed with modern technology and investment in monitoring this waste for example.

Here’s what we can do in this first part of the food system: Go to the fields. There are normally a lot of crops left because they do not fit the expectations of us consumers. Ugly potatoes, for example. Pick your own vegetables. That also lifts some of the moral weight off the farmers. It’s not their fault. We as consumers are the crazy ones here. A farmer showing his harvest on a local market will have a problem with selling all of his products. Why? Because we don’t like to buy the last one of a sort. We think that there is something wrong with this kale or carrot or whatever. When in the end, there is something wrong with us. If farmers allow people to get their own vegetables from the fields, they do not have to simply throw their crops away anymore. This food actually does have a purpose in the end.

2. From the Supermarkets to Our Homes.

Food waste is primarily due to our mindsets. We only buy products if they look good. Only if there are many of the products displayed. If the date printed on the packaging is not yet reached. This date doesn’t tell us anything. Depending on the type of food, you can eat them days, weeks or even months after their best before date. In German we have the term “Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum” (we love our long words…) which basically means “at least edible until …” Now what does “at least” mean??? That doesn’t make any sense. Neither does our whole food system.

Our choices are just made on appearances. That apple that is not perfectly round, the cucumber with a non-straight shape. I’m not telling you to eat mouldy food or bad food. I just want you to give a little love to ugly carrots and tomatoes. Who of you has ever had a garden or worked in one? How many of these vegetables that you put so much water and effort into were pretty? How much percent of them would you have bought? Close to zero I suppose. In which way is your tiny garden patch different to the huge plantations we have today? They are still plants grown in nature! If you now have the numbers of your own garden in mind, try to imagine the incredible amounts of food that are thrown away in supermarkets! It hurts seeing pictures of containers full of still edible food. Good food, tasty and healthy food. All wasted because it wasn’t pretty enough.

This is what I would like you to do: Go to your store and try to find fruits that are not that pretty. Eggs that have a little crack in them (you can then put them into a glass of water to check if they are still edible. If they are on the bottom, you can). Ask if you can have any of the dairy products that the supermarkets would throw out otherwise. Ask for bread that is a day old. And please, please. Limit your products a bit in accordance to the seasons and the travels they have made. Try to eat less meat, fish and dairy products.

3. From Our Homes to the Trash

“Almost 50% of the total amount of food thrown away in the UK comes from our homes. We throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year in the UK, and more than half of this is food and drink we could have eaten.” That’s a shocking statistic! That means we throw away more than ¼ of the food that could have fed us.

Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Plan your meals. Think about what you could make with what you have in the fridge. Be creative. Stick to your plans. Involve your children in the process. They need to see how important food is and that wasting it is a serious issue.
  2. Go shopping when you need something. Make a list and buy only items from your list. Don’t wander around and buy things that look nice to you and that could potentially… maybe… they are not eaten in the end. It’s the same with shopping for clothes. If it doesn’t 100% fit and you don’t like or need it 100%, don’t buy it.
  3. Look into your fridge before you go grocery shopping. You might not remember that you have already bought something.
  4. Put fresh food in the freezer. You will probably not eat a whole loaf of bread in a few days. Freeze it in slices and eat it in small portions rather than throwing away half a loaf.
  5. If you haven’t finished your meals, put them back into the fridge and eat them the next day. Stress to your children the importance of saving food or finishing it.
  6. Ask in restaurants if you can take the leftovers home.
  7. If bananas are a little too ripe, make a banana bread. If vegetables are a little squishy, cook them. Trust your senses. If they still smell good and taste good, they are still ok!
  8. Ask friends if they could use some of your vegetables you will not eat. Ask them over for dinner! Swap ingredients around neighbours.
  9. Compost organic material if you can.
  10. Eat consciously. Everything that you eat has an origin. Your cereals come from fields, your dairy products from real cows. Think of the impact you have on your environment. Enjoy your meals, don’t throw them away.

That all sounds so bad, but here is a good sign. As always, it comes from a Scandinavian country: Denmark has opened its first supermarket which sells food that would have gone to waste. There are a lot of awesome projects concerning food waste. Inform yourself where you can help in your area to prevent food waste.

A lot of the food waste is due to our culture and our minds. You are hosting a party. Your biggest concern will be that you haven’t got ENOUGH food, never TOO MUCH. In a restaurant last week we finished our meals and the waiter said: “Oh, you ate everything, then it clearly must have been not enough!” What is that crazy thinking we do here? It’s always about more and more. Not about reduction. You feel embarrassed if you guests ate all the food at your party. When all you should be is happy that you don’t have to throw anything away. We need to change that perception in our society.

As you might have noticed, I’m a bit angry concerning the topic of food waste. We are just trying to fix all of these global climate issues and in the end our own consumption is one of the main problems, nobody talks about. There are more and more campaigns but do they put up signs in the supermarket: “Only buy what you need! Don’t throw food away!” Are the supermarkets themselves doing anything to reduce the amounts of food discarded? The policy makers? No.

This was a little guide to conquer the problem of food waste. If you calculate your carbon footprint, you are normally asked how much food you throw away. Because that can be quite significant for your greenhouse gas emissions. Try to be kind to our planet. Try to remember all those shocking numbers. We are wasting 1/3 of our food in the world, 1/3 of our soils, so much money and water. How much good we could derive from this 1/3! How many people we could make happy and satisfied. What a wonderful place this earth would be if we ate what we made.

Current Word Count: 43780



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