Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, by Tristram Stuart.

British author Tristram Stuart raised pigs as a teenager. Like humans, pigs are single stomached omnivores. To feed his unfussy charges, Stuart asked his school canteen for leftovers. Food soon started coming in by the sack load from local bakers, markets and farmers. Further investigation found supermarkets and retailers tossing out great mountains of perfectly good food. His pigs thrived, and soon grew big enough to eat. Here was an economic lesson: rubbish could be turned into bacon.

Soon Stuart found that if the food was good enough for his omnivorous pigs, then it was good enough for him. Yet amazement at all this free food soon turned to disgust at its waste, and eating discarded food became a protest at the obscene levels of waste in our food system.

Today’s urban hunter-gatherers who forage in supermarket dumpsters call themselves ‘freegans’, and you’ll be quite amazed at what they can haul out of a bin. Stuart once found boxes of fresh mangoes in a supermarket skip and made them into lassi drinks for a friend’s wedding.

Waste, however, is no alternative lifestyle guide. Nor is it some mad Greenie’s recycling manifesto. Stuart pulls his focus back from the dumpster to give a big picture view of the shocking inefficiencies in the way we make and market food. When the veil is lifted on how food is farmed, processed, marketed, sold and often thrown away your jaw will hit the ground.

Perfectly good vegetables get chucked because they’re not of an elegant enough shape; inaccurate and overly cautious ‘use-by’ and ‘best-before dates’ cause perfectly edible food to be binned; gourmet food outlets throw out enormous amounts of dainty delectables rather than give them away. In Australia, dumpsters groan with food that could be given to the poor.

Recently on SBS's Insight Program, Woolworths' Environmental Manager Kane Hardingham confessed to throwing out 65,000 tonnes of food a year. "We know that's a waste," he admitted. You can say that again.

The West’s high meat diet is another area that involves much waste. For every 10 kilograms of cereals fed to cattle, one kilogram comes back in beef. Huge resources are put into creating meat: some 40 per cent of the world’s cereals are fed to farm animals. The world's poor are in stiff competition with Western farm animals for food. One third to a half of the carcase is simply thrown away, and Stuart urges meat eaters to start eating offal: livers, kidneys, lungs, hearts, tongue, brains and so on.

It’s not just the food, either. Every wasted mouthful has many unthought of knock on effects: water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, increasing pressure on cereal prices.

The good news about food waste is that this is an environmental and waste problem that would be painless to fix. Convincing people of the savings involved in eating rather than binning food would provide a windfall to individuals, nations, and ultimately the globe’s environment.

Stuart quotes the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation economist W. H. Bender who says global food demand could decrease by 20 per cent if rich countries reduced waste and poorer countries reduced post-harvest losses. This alone would liberate 294 million hectares of cropland and 659 hectares of pasture land. That's a lot of pressure taken off the environment.

‘If there were a global democracy’, says Stuart, ‘among the first measures proposed by poorer people would probably be a cull of livestock fattened on cereals and a proscription of the unnecessary waste of food.’

While we can’t very well stick that uneaten sandwich in an envelope and mail it to Africa, there are always poor people struggling in rich societies. Why can’t businesses donate more of the food they throw away, freeing up the pay packets of the poor? The complexities of this problem are highlighted in the case of US behemoth Wal-Mart sacking employee Jeffrey Janes for taking meat out of the companies waste bins and cooking it for his workmates. Janes was awarded $167,000 for wrongful termination.

How many calories does the Western body need? Due to our sedentary lifestyle, only about 1900-2000 calories per day according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Stuart suggests we should provide about 30% slack in the food system to account for fluctuations in production. Currently Europe and the US makes around 3500-3900 calories available to each of its citizens. Australians can’t be far off this figure.

With so many health, environmental and equity issues surrounding our over consumption of food, perhaps public health policy makers should be focusing on a guideline calorie consumption figure for its citizens. Eating only 2000 calories per day would be a simple concept that people could easily remember.

With the global financial crisis still unfolding, and finance Ministers and Treasurers the world over looking under the cushions for extra money, here is a book that can identify a wealth of savings. Perhaps Treasurer Swan should be urging more Australians to lick their plates clean.

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