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Watching our wasteline

By Darryl D'Monte

Every year the UK alone chucks 484 million unopened tubs of yoghurt, 1.6 billion untouched apples, bananas worth £370 million and 2.6 billion slices of bread. In his recent book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram Stuart documents the extent of waste in the food industry worldwide

Uncovering the Global Food Scandal

I was a student in the UK in the 1960s and like most undergraduates at the time, we looked for summer jobs. I once was hired by a chain known as Lyon’s Corner Houses to wash dishes during the day on Oxford Street, where all the biggest shops are located. It was warm at that time of the year, and the huge self-service restaurant prepared row after row of plated salads – mainly lettuce and other fresh vegetables, garnished with slices of ham and hardboiled eggs. At the end of our shift every evening, we were told to dump whatever was left into the dustbins because there was apparently no place to store such leftover food. Needless to say, we salvaged what we could and surreptitiously carried wads of ham and eggs home, but there was a limit to what we could take, and consume.

I’m sure everyone has his or her story of such waste – usually, but by no means exclusively – in the West. An example closer home was around 15 years ago when a TV entertainment channel held its first anniversary bash at the Flying Club in Mumbai. It was not a conventional setting and several caterers, specialising in their distinctive cuisine, were invited to set up stalls around the sprawling grounds. It was meant to end with champagne at breakfast, but lacking that staying power, we made our exit soon after 1 am. On the way out, I met a caterer I knew, and he told me that they had been given orders to throw away all the remaining food as the day dawned. There were well over 1,000 guests, and he must have seen the consternation in my face, so he hastily explained that this not being a customary venue, no arrangements were in place to give away oodles of the most scrumptious delicacies.

While evidence of waste of perfectly edible food is the stuff of endless anecdotes, few have bothered to document it, whether locally, nationally and certainly not internationally. Tristram Stuart has risen to the task, manfully, with his recent book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, London, 2009). He has even spent some months in Delhi and the blurb notes that he has freelanced for Indian newspapers. Unlike many critics of various aspects of the food industry, he comes from a farming family, and now rears pigs, chickens and bees in the UK. For this book, he travelled from his native Yorkshire to China, Pakistan and Japan.

Last year, a German friend informed me that he was working on a documentary about middle class people in that country who are by no means badly off, but have stumbled upon one of the best-kept secrets in the global food industry. For various and complex reasons, including the danger of being sued for selling anyone stale and contaminated food, supermarkets fix expiry dates on packages. Stuart belongs to the intrepid band of ‘freegans’ – as distinct from vegans, popularised by Bernard Shaw – who systematically salvage its most nutritious ‘junk’ from waste bins on the eve of the expiry date. What they can’t themselves consume, they pass on to others but, being hard-core greens (the human variety), they tend to recycle much of the fruit into syrups and jams, and also give leftovers to what seems to be the author’s favourite animal – pigs, which devour just about everything and turn themselves into future food, the ultimate self-sacrifice.

He publishes a photograph of the discarded foodstuff from a small local village shop in Sussex, a far cry from gargantuan supermarkets, where the cornucopia of perfectly edible pies, croissants, sliced meat and chocolates – all in an evening’s harvest – is enough to make anyone’s mouth water. A few similarly telling photographs later, there’s one of a conveyor belt full of bread slices. We learn that the reputed clothing and food supermarket chain Marks & Spencer requires their sandwich supplier, the Hain Celestial [sic] Group, to discard four slices from each loaf -- the crust and the first slice at either end, 13,000 slices of fresh bread every day from a single factory. Entire crops of spinach are left to rot in the field because they don’t meet some aesthetic standard or the other.

An example that I am familiar with is potatoes. A multinational food chain, Tesco’s, rejects thousands of tonnes for purely cosmetic reasons. As ecologists know, the original potatoes from Peru were purple and knobbly. Those that Tesco demand -- and countless other chains, and even more stringently by chip manufacturers – have to be as rounded as possible, merely pleasing to the eye of the consumer, with not an iota more nutrition. As it happens, a UNEP workshop in Bangkok last year on sustainable development heard that the local Tesco in Thailand was a model company. As a Bangladeshi reporter wrote: “The company set a policy to recycle all packaging materials 100% every day…The first ‘Green Store’ has 7,000 sq metres of solar panels… which has helped reduce energy use 12.5% in the building. Waste water is harvested to use in the cooling tunnel of the air-conditioning system while rain water is used to flush toilets. Beside the store there is a recreation pond and its water is recycled from public sewerage system. In the second Tesco green store, a local solar power unit has been used to reduce electricity in air-conditioning... ‘Our target is clear: we want to be the green leader in the business sector and we’re doing all we can to achieve that goal,’ said Sukontasap [a manager]”. Obviously, the left hand knows not what the right is doing, that too, in the UK, the country of its HQ.

Stuart goes about demolishing the waste generated by the food industry with the demoniacal zeal of an omnivore. Lest the reader here gets the impression that such profligacy is a mere aberration in the affluent West, he points to the levels of poverty in advanced countries. In his home country, 4 million people (out of a total of 60 million) are unable “to access a decent diet”. In the US, 35 million are similarly disadvantaged; in the EU, 43 million are “at the risk of food poverty”. The author obviously knows his native country the best; it is estimated that nearly 6 million tonnes of food are wasted every year – a staggering 13% of the total output. Of this, nearly 2 million tonnes was segregated biodegradable waste, which refers to food wasted at the farm, factory and home.

With the passion of an evangelist, Stuart lists levels of waste in the UK: 484 million unopened tubs of yoghurt, 1.6 billion untouched apples (27 apples per Briton), bananas worth £370 million and 2.6 billion slices of bread. By contrast, during the First World War, the British government had posters urging people: ‘Don’t Waste Bread! Save two thick slices every day!’ These constitute, after all, a tenth of every loaf. He excoriates the practice by supermarkets of labelling produce by expiry or ‘best by’ dates. While the latter practice he finds particularly abhorrent, since it is nowhere near the date by which the food becomes unsafe for consumption, he finds it difficult to understand why food, the dates of which have recently expired, can’t be fed to pigs. These animals, as the Chinese know only too well, can consume all household refuse, virtually everything which has not really gone ‘off’.

If there is one message that comes through loud and clear from this book, it is the “unthinkingness” (not the author’s word) of it all. Farmers give in to the bullying by huge bulk purchasers, purchasers pay excessive prices at supermarkets or restaurants without complaining, and these two outlets waste food without batting an eyelid or giving it away to the hungry. But it is important to remember that each and every one of us is guilty of wasting, as Stuart scolds even himself. How many times have we consigned greens, cheese and other produce to the inner recesses of the fridge, only to junk it when it is too mouldy to eat? If one adds up the cumulative amount of such waste, it is simply enormous.

Indeed, it is built into the very system. In the US, between the two decades ending in 2004, the amount of food available in shops and restaurants rose by nearly one-fifth, from 3,300 to 3,900 kcal per person per day. In the EU, it is over 3,500. As Stuart remarks, “Some of this increase goes towards expanding waistlines; most of the rest is used to fill waste-bins.” One has only to remember that the Planning Commission in this country measures the poverty line as the package of goods and services which provide 2,300 kcal per person in the countryside and 2,100 in urban areas. And one has to heed what environmentalists have been pointing out for some years: that in so-called ‘modern’ farming in industrial countries, the calories in what are inputs (if one takes the energy embodied in fertiliser, pesticides, mechanisation, tractors, packaging etc) are greater than the calories contained in the food produced. This is, by any reckoning, wonky economics, made possible only by huge subsidies provided to farmers and in those countries.

It is not only the amount of food which is a problem, but its composition. As is well documented, meat diverts enormous resources (as do biofuels) – cereals, land, water and energy – which is why Brazil’s rainforests are being axed for the ‘McDonald-isation’ of the world. In the last 40 years, the production of meat has multiplied two-and-a-half times. Believe it or not, the combined weight of cattle (India has the largest, though by no means the fattest, population in the world) exceeds that of humans, in an era where consuming beef (all red meat) is widely known to be unhealthy. Global meat production rose from 27 kg per person per year in 1975 to 37 kg in 2000. By 2050, it is expected to rise to over 52 kg – some of it fuelled by increased consumption in China and some other developing countries. By 2050 – which is incidentally the deadline by which the UN expects all countries to cut their greenhouse gas to avert a global catastrophe – the FAO estimates that cereal consumption by all livestock (including poultry) may rise to a billion tonnes a year, which is the same as diverting foodgrains which could feed 3 billion people, half the present globe’s population.

Following the critiques of the ecological ‘footprint’ of nations, the author notes that between 1980 and 2003 in Asia, per capita consumption of protein from livestock (which would include milk and dairy products)  increased by 140%. For such countries to reach the current level of consumption in industrial countries, they would have to eat three-and-a-half times more than they now do. “In 2003, Americans were eating 24 times more meat than Indians,” the author notes. “At 123 kg of meat per person per year, Americans exceed  the British appetite for 83 kg…the Chinese 55 kg…and Indians just 5 kg. So it is up to rich countries to address their consumption first, rather than pointing the finger of blame at developing nations’ increasing meat consumption -- as innumerable media articles and political leaders (such as George W Bush) did during the food crisis in 2008.”

It will be a big mistake to imagine that big fat Westerners alone are to blame for all the waste of food in the world. Well-to-do Indians must accept our share of the guilt. At fixed-price buffets in five-star hotels, as well as weddings and other functions, people fill their plates with much more than they can eat. Many vegetarian restaurants with ‘unlimited’ thalis ladle serving after serving of food on unwary patrons without asking them, presumably in the name of hospitality. Fortunately, some wedding caterers in Mumbai actually sell leftovers in the original banana leaves, which may sound exploitative but at least saves food from the trash bins. There is a case for reducing prices of food, prior to giving it away, but establishments are wary of any such differential pricing. Some Mumbai eateries halve their prices after 8 pm, which ensures a (young) late-evening clientele.

We are also obsessed with food being jhoota which inhibits us from eating anything that someone else can’t finish. After graduating from a British university, I made a trip to New York in the late-1960s and lived for a few weeks on a shoestring budget. A friend and I used to frequent a chain which only served beef steaks accompanied by gigantic ‘Idaho baked potatoes’, filled with a generous amount of cheese. More often than not, the patrons left the potatoes untouched because they were weight-conscious; we used to sip our coffees and surreptitiously salvage the potatoes in a plastic bag, which would later become our meal.  But even in the West, people are becoming conscious, in these trying times, of cutting down on waste. Some restaurants have downsized their servings, but given clients the option of ordering a larger size or ‘extras’ for the same cost.  Even more pointedly, one restaurant has started charging customers by weight for the food left in their plates, which will surely send a powerful message to would-be wasters.

As with many crusaders, Stuart is bursting with analysis and somewhat lean on prescription. He concludes by referring to “Utrophia”—a place of Good-Eating – where consumers would stop wasting food by reusing, recycling and so on. We should buy knobbly fruits and vegetables and, if possible, directly from farmers (China is hot on urban agriculture). Parents need to teach children not to waste and can liven up their meals by, among other ways, telling them where the food has originated from. Governments have a role in educating people, just as they did in Europe and the US during the world wars. He advocates a tax on wasting edible food regardless of how efficiently it is disposed of, which would create a fiscal incentive to make giving away food to charities a priority, rather than other methods of disposing of it.

If there is one criticism of this book, it is that it simply overwhelms one with facts and numbers, to the extent that the reader wonders whether or not there is a repetition or reiteration of the argument. However, that is a minor blemish in a very readable book which many will refer to for years to come, one which will make many people in the world aware of the carelessness with which we discard this most precious and sustaining commodity.

Infochange News & Features, September 2009