Food shortage and food waste

The Independent tells us that people are going whole days without food in the year the grains failed. Poor harvests are a real problem as I wrote yesterday. But is that the main reason for hunger? The European Union (EU) says that in the developed world, far too much food is wasted at the retail and consumption stages.

I find this very easy to believe and impossible to condone. It’s become commonplace for people to throw good food away, whether into landfill or into any other waste stream. I’m proud to be old-fashioned in this way. My mother, and the Home Economics classes we had at school in the 1970s and 1980s, taught me to be thrifty. Waste not, want not. More and more I find that I’m in a minority with this. I’m hoping for a change in attitudes, as seen at Love Food Hate Waste. The BBC tells us about recipes for leftovers. My mother cooked liked that, using recipes by Elizabeth David and other important role models. The meals were excellent.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) says that we do well to eat leftovers if we do it safely. When we in the rich countries throw good food away, who benefits from it? You probably know the answer. The rats get fat.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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23 Responses to Food shortage and food waste

  1. petrel41 says:

    Indeed, consumers, restaurant, shops, etc. throwing away edible food is a big problem.

    There is still another problem, called “doordraaien” in Dutch. I am not sure what the correct English translation is.

    Here is the (very mechanical, Google) translation of the Dutch Wikipedia “Doordraaien” article. I suppose that “(by) turning” and “rotating” are not correct translations; but the problem is there in most countries, I think:

    Turning is a concept in vegetable and flower growers, which relates to the auctioning of the products. It means that the auction clock has been turned.

    There is auctioned to exit. If a certain price fixed by the seller reserve is not met, then that party of goods are not sold and they are taken off the market (and destroyed). The party has been rotated. The “roatating” does not refer to the destruction of goods themselves, but to the conduct of the auction.

    The minimum price is not announced in advance, to prevent that a buyer can anticipate, and wait until just before that price is reached, and is then reported. To prevent a party “by turns” and he will be destroyed for security reasons so timely reporting. This is similar to the lack of knowledge of the buyers themselves: a potential buyer does not know how much another buyer will register and will therefore provide timely safety reasons, to prevent the party to another’s. Likewise, the seller hopes that a buyer will timely report before it by rotation amount is reached. Because although the minimum never be disclosed to buyers of course their product knowledge and trading experience used to better estimate the minimum price will be around, so they are not too much above have to offer.

    By turning occurs in periods when too much is produced. Often, it is again to be the cause of a large-scale production.

    So, with “doordraaien” there is enough food. Too much food for market economy standards. It gets destroyed, even though many people may be hungry, but these people don’t have enough money to buy it.

    In the film Zuiderzee by Dutch director Joris Ivens from 1930 (economic crisis) there is a song, with the sarcastic line “In Argentina, the land of promise, there are employment opportunities for people throwing away coffee .”

    • argylesock says:

      This is interesting but I don’t entirely understand. The link you gave isn’t in English, the only language I speak or read. So now I wonder whether there’s an equivalent to doordraaien over here.

  2. Missus Tribble says:

    It’s a disgrace; nothing in our house gets wasted if it can be transformed into a different meal or put into a sandwich. I think that the only thing that was wasted this month was some leftover tuna that I shouldn’t have been offering to BSC *anyway* (but you know I’m a great big softie for animals) and if it can be composted it gets reused on my roses in time. This often means that we get unexpected tomato plants growing where we don’t want them, but they get pulled up and recomposted too (we already grow a good tomato crop and don’t have space in the greenhouse any more!)

    I’ve watched shows in which perfectly good produce is discarded because of weight or shape and it sickens me to no end when I think about all the uses I would have for such discards – never mind all the countries – and even individuals in this country – who would be so incredibly thankful for just one oddly shaped apple.

    • argylesock says:

      Yes it’s really offensive to throw food away, isn’t it? I have to push myself to do it when health issues make it really impossible to eat certain foods. My body isn’t a dustbin. But other than that, I don’t ditch food. I’m glad you don’t either.

      Home composting is great. I do it as you know. But it’s a waste disposal system, just as landfill or incineration are. Food that could be used to make a human meal doesn’t belong in the compost bin.

      • Missus Tribble says:

        Sadly, my health and my crazy eating pattern sometimes means that veggies go uncooked and so they go off, and we won’t throw them out when they can nourish the garden. Anything we can feed to the birds (fat, scraps of meat, cooked veg that has been in the fridge for a while) gets mixed together into “fat cakes” – especially during the colder months when birds need all the fat reserves they can get.

        If it can be reused in any way once it’s outlived edibility for humans it feeds the garden or the birds. That’s what I call recycling 🙂

        • argylesock says:

          What you describe is very much like my own practice. It’s not what I mean by wasting food.

          Wasting food is when, for example, people take 4 slices from a freshly cooked joint of meat, then throw the rest into the bin (whether landfill or compost) just because it’s no longer today’s meal. Or when people buy a takeaway, or order a restaurant meal, but eat only a few bites before moving onto the next food. It shocks me to see so many people doing this, not because they dislike the food or because of health concerns, just because they don’t want to bother finishing their portion.

          • Missus Tribble says:

            Meat doesn’t compost very well. I don’t understand people who do that – there’s plenty of sandwiches, pies, stews and salads that can be made out of the leftover joint!

            Leftover Chinese in this house always gets eaten eventually. Mostly incorporated into tasty stir-fries, but often straight from the fridge. The birds get anything that we can’t eat before it needs getting rid of (almost unheard of in this house as we both love our Chinese food and it’s usually gone in three days).

            I couldn’t eat all of my meal when we were out with my Mum, so she wrapped up my remaining salmon for me and I made a sesame stir-fry out of it the following day. Waste not want not if you can find a way to get it home!

  3. EqFe says:

    As a child, in the US we were always taught to finish our plates, because their were children starving in some part of the world, as if, if we are, they wouldn’t starve. So next time you walk past a ft person, raise you arm a salute, and say, “Hail to thee fat person, thou hast saved many lives.”
    I think that the largest part of food waste, in the developed world, occurs before it even gets into our homes. Mechanical harvesting leaves much food in the fields. I worked in a warehouse for a few years, and the number of whole truckloads of spiled produce was staggering. Supermarkets etc then cull the less than perfect produce as they are stocking the selves. and then daily to keep the displays pristine.

  4. Finn Holding says:

    Great post!

    I think society as a whole is responsible, it’s a complex issue ultimately driven by what consumers have been driven to expect from their food suppliers. It needs the voice of common sense to be raised by enough people to change practices. It’s got to happen because if it doesn’t the consequences are a tad scary.

  5. The problem of food being thrown out before getting to our plates is actually something which is overlooked.

    Sainsbury announced recently they would allow vegetables which are usually “plowed back into the field” to be sold (also known as the “ugly” fruit and veg), and there has been a lot of problems, especially for potato farmers. At one point even Duchy Originals (The Prince of Wales company) got told their food would be rejected…fortunately, that company is big enough, and carries the prestige to tell the supermarkets where to get off, but many of the supermarket practices with their suppliers lead to absolutely unbelievable food waste, before it even hits our fridge.

    It is not just the UK either:

    I am guilty of throwing food out (not in the way described above with the meat), due to my annoying food thing at the moment, I make something, and then my brain kicks into stupid mode and I cant eat it.

    • argylesock says:

      Belated response… there’s a scandal here, isn’t there? But it’s a hidden scandal.

      Thanks for the Aussie link. I see what the supermarket spokespeople mean about needing to meet customers’ expectations (retailers are in business to make money, after all) but perhaps we can hope for a change in fashion. It could become ‘cool’ to buy cheap food with cosmetic blemishes. There’s so much personal debt, we hear, that I think a fashion for thrift might catch on.

      I didn’t know that you had trouble persuading yourself to eat. Is it an eating disorder? (Don’t answer that if you prefer not to: this is a public blog.) As you know I have trouble with food due to physical health issues and there’s at least one person following my blog here who has trouble with food. These things are real. But I think our contribution to the issue of food wastage is trivial compared to things like chucking ‘ugly’ veg onto the soil. That, I think, is an invitation to pests (rats, slugs, whatever) as well as being shamefully wasteful. Whereas being unable to eat some meals, for health reasons whether physical or mental, isn’t shameful. It’s nothing to beat ourselves up about.

  6. The supermarket waste is a very difficult issue to get to the bottom of, its a chicken/egg thing…they say that they only provide food which we ask for, but, did we actually ask for that, or was it subtly sold to us?

    It is something that I am very passionate about, and have several very good books on the subject.
    As someone who knows people within the farming sector, you have probably heard of the problems with supermarket buyers and some of their practices.

    • Finn Holding says:

      It seems there’s a very interesting discussion developing here about where the problem originates: is it the supermarkets, is it us consumers, are the supermarkets justifying their actiivities by claiming to only give us what we ask for? And where do the producers, the farmers, fit in? It’s a complex issue but one that has to be sorted out in the very near future.

      I think alot of power needs to be taken out of the hands of the supermarkets and the middlemen and given back to the end user. Us. E.g, If coffee producers in Kenya or Costa Rica barely make enough money to feed and educate their children, and we’re paying £3 for a small bag of the stuff, where is the money going? I’d love to see the farmers get together in cooperatives and sell more produce directly to the end user. Us. It could form a significant part of an equitable and sustainable solution.

      Ploughing perfectly edible food back into the ground because it has a small blemish is not only obscene, it is also an intellectual absurdity on every level. And let’s be honest, so much supermarket food may look pretty, but an awful lot of it tastes like crap! When was the last time you tasted a supermarket bought strawberry that tasted like it should? And bags of dry papery ‘salad’ leaves that taste worse than the plastic bag they come in?

      We can use our purchasing power to dictate what supermarkets sell, but the problem needs to be tackled from both ends, by us and the producers.

      What does everyone reckon?

      • argylesock says:

        Good points. The Cooperative movement is on my to-blog list. Also the Fair Trade movement and direct selling from farmer to consumer.

        About supermarket strawberries: yes they don’t taste good these days. I harvest lovely strawbs from my allotment but don’t buy the supermarket ones. Because of their bland flavour: varieties with good shelf life, I assume. Because the season has been extended so far that it’s not special any more: no more excitement of strawberries and cream when the big tennis matches are on at Wimbledon. Because of food miles: Kenyan strawbs in April! Because of water management in our own country and in other producing countries.

    • argylesock says:

      Now you mention it, I haven’t discussed this directly with any farmer. My recent posts about milk prices cover just about all I know on the supermarket/farmer issue. Will blog more if I learn more.

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