Food for thought –not to waste

Whenever I throw some food away which actually could still be eaten, my wife remarks that children in Africa are starving. My reply is “why don’t we put a post stamp on it and send it to Africa?”. But she is right of course: it is a waste to waste food.

In one of my other postings I wrote about food scarcity and how prices of food are driven up by speculation, lack of fertilizers, oil prices, etc. But food scarcity has another side. According to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, of the 4 billion metric tons of food that the world yearly produces, 30 to 50% never reaches human stomachs. This, according to the Institution, is due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage. As a result large amounts of land, energy, fertilizers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which then simply end up as waste. Problems with harvesting, storage and transportation mostly happens in developing countries while in affluent societies food is wasted due to retail and customer behavior.

Because consumers are fussy and picky, a lot of produce never makes it to the shelves since it does not look ‘perfect’ in terms of size, shape and appearance. It is simple left behind on the fields or not selected for processing. For example, up to 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of such practices. Globally, retailers generate 1.6 million tons of food-waste annually in this way. Of the produce that does make to the supermarket a lot is sold in bulk which, in the case of perishable food, inevitably leads to waste since consumers cannot use it all before expiration date. Overall between 30% and 50% of what has been bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser. Supermarkets also throw food away because it crossed the expiration date while it is still perfectly eatable. In the Netherlands 400,000 loaves of bread or 10 millions slices of bread are thrown away each day. Wrongly estimating the amount of food needed to prepare meals, leads to the wasting of 38% of rice, of 23% of pasta and of 23% of potato. All households combined in the Netherlands throw around 800 million kilos of food away per year. That is 100,000 garbage trucks full of food. A lot of that is collected via green bins and turned into compost.

Because so much food is wasted implies that a lot of resources such as land, water, energy and fertilizers are used in vain, not to mention the burden their misuse puts on the environment. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers would not be the Institution of Mechanical Engineers if they did not emphasize the improvement of engineering techniques to reduce the waste of food. They also recommend changes in retail and consumption practices. That might even be a bigger challenge than improving engineering techniques! But people become more aware of food-waste with rising food prices and less income to spend. Also people become aware that food does not have to look perfect. This for instance led to an initiative in the Netherlands of ‘food combing’where people sign up to a service which alerts them of farmland where produce is left on the field because the produce was not perfect looking, not on a spot for easy harvesting or left behind because there was simply too much produce. From this service both farmer and collector profit.

Our grandparents and parents knew how not to waste food. Incomes were meager and food therefore a big part of disposable incomes. Food was not bought in bulk but what was needed for that day or food for a few days ahead was bought (a practice that nowadays happens in Serbia again). Leftovers were eaten the next day or saved up to make a combination dish. People were very resourceful in creating dishes out of leftover food. Nowadays, food often is sold prepared, precut and prepackaged, and some people don’t even know the most basic of cooking techniques. People buy prepared and precut food because it is easy and people have busy lifestyles which prevent them from taking the time to prepare food themselves. It is time for people to take a step back and reconnect to the food that they eat.

Some recipes for leftovers:

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