Food waste, one of the key issues underlying Jonathan Miles's Want Not, is a problem that is beginning to draw more attention worldwide. Every year American households and retailers throw away 40 million tons of usable food. In early 2013 the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers issued a report, entitled "Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not," which estimated that 30-50% of food produced worldwide goes to waste. This is due to a combination of factors including supermarkets' strict aesthetic standards for produce, restaurants' super-sized portions, consumers buying more than they need or not using food in time (often spurred by buy-one-get-one-free deals), and inefficient methods of food harvesting and transportation in developing nations. Compounding the food loss itself is the waste of land, water, and energy used to grow and process it.
Meanwhile, over 1 billion people (many of them in Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa) are malnourished. Yet, as Tristram Stuart reveals in his book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (and on his website), just one quarter of the food regularly wasted in the United States and Europe would solve world hunger. Stuart has also headed "The Pig Idea," encouraging the UK government to feed food waste to livestock. Many food campaigners and restaurateurs have joined him in pushing for a change in European law to allow food waste to be given to pigs, a common practice outlawed in 2001, after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was traced to a farm that was illegally feeding its pigs unprocessed restaurant food waste. Leftovers from food manufacturing, such as whey from cheese-making, can still be used. (By contrast, sending food waste to pigs is mandatory in some Asian countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.) Stuart predicts that feeding waste to livestock could be up to 20 times more carbon-efficient than the current British strategy of sending it for anaerobic digestion (a form of renewable energy).
The UK charity FareShare saves over 3,800 tons of food annually, ensuring that it goes to nourish those who need it most, via homeless hostels, school breakfast clubs, and drug rehabilitation programs. Food Cowboy launched in 2012, connects American food producers with food charities. Using smartphone technology, truckers learn about unwanted food and deliver it to rescue groups or to farmers for composting. CropMobster also finds uses for excess food, usually through message boards where producers can advertise free or discounted goods. Although federal tax credit is given for anti-waste schemes, some retailers are still wary, worrying they could be sued if rotten food ever makes people sick. A recent NPR report profiled Food Cowboy and other startup companies tackling food waste in different parts of America.
While this is the big picture, what small steps can all of us take to reduce food waste and work toward better food distribution? First of all, we can resist the urge to buy more food than we can use, whether in restaurants or supermarkets. The Global Food Banking Network can put you in touch with food banks that accept surplus food and distribute it both nationally and internationally. Organizations such as Solid Ground in Seattle carry out community harvests so unwanted, ripe fruit can be donated.
You don't have to go to the extremes of the characters in Want Not (one of whom is nearly crushed in a trash compactor while rescuing some perfectly good steaks from a supermarket dumpster) to opt out of the current system that tells you to obey expiration dates slavishly and buy only the nicest-looking produce. Meanwhile, here's some good news from the UK: avoidable food waste decreased by 21% between 2007 and 2012 (according to Love Food, Hate Waste). The tactics discussed above can really work, and we can all participate in the solution.
Picture of food waste from Flickr.com. Author, Taz
This article was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the
May 2014 paperback release.
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