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  • Kimberley Greed
  • 15 January 2013
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Why food waste is food for thought

I’m sure many people are recovering from a month-long binge of hearty meals, nibbles and treats during the Christmas holiday. But what happens to all the left-overs and unwanted food? Well, the simple answer is that most of it ends up in the bin. In fact, this is the fatal end for most of our food throughout the year. 

A report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, called ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’, found that between 30% and 50%, or 1.2 and 2 billion tonnes of food, produced around the world never makes it on to a plate. The implications of this are truly worrying, from an ecological, economic and social point of view. 

Consider the energy that goes into food production; for example, wheat. The farmer has to grow the produce, using a combination of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation. Then the wheat must be harvested, using fuel, and when it has been processed it can finally be transported to the next chain in the food-production process. Each of these stages require inputs and contribute to waste themselves. So if I tell you that in the UK as much as 30% of vegetable crops are not harvested because of their failure to meet retailers' demanding standards on physical appearance, you will have an of idea of just how much waste has been produced in addition to the end-product itself. 

So what happens to this waste?

Some of it will be composted, which at least recovers some energy from the process. But mostly, food waste is still sent to landfill. When food rots down it releases Methane and Nitrous Oxide gases, which are far more potent Greenhouse Gases than Carbon Dioxide. So when we innocently throw waste into our bins, we create a chain of environmental consequences which extend far beyond us.

But what does this actually mean for us, directly? This waste amounts to an average cost of about £480 a household per year. Needless to say this money could be put to better use, but with increasing utility and food prices, it has never been more important to cut down on unnecessary expenditure. In fact, food security is becoming an increasing issue, making it highly possible that global food prices will continue to rise. 

With the world population expected to rise by 2 billion people by 2050, combined with the predicted effects of climate variability, we can expect serious challenges in food security. But my real question is ‘why should this need to hit the headlines for us to consider something which we are all guilty of every single day?’ It should constantly be at the forefront of our minds, so why does so much waste occur?

A good place to start is with Supermarkets. One thing people often forget is that they are not there simply to feed us, but to make money out of us. The varying bargains and offers we see on the shelves reel us in like a fish on bait. We consciously decide to buy two bags of oranges instead of the one that we had planned for, need, and can manage to eat in time, which leads me on to my next qualm; use and sell-by dates. 

For many of us, we see an expiration date and follow it like scripture. Not only must we distinguish between sell and use-by dates, but we must remember that these are only intended as a guide. In many cases, you need only follow your nose and apply a bit of common sense to see whether you do in fact need to bin those biscuits. 

Another thing that really bothers me is the type of food we select. We do, as a society, have a preference for perfection. If anything looks even the slightest bit different to what we expect we assume that it’s ‘off’ (hence supermarkets’ high standards). Buying loose items can also help cut down, as buying pre-packaged food commits us to buying a specified amount which we may not need. If we count items as we need them, we can avoid biting off more than we can chew. 

Although I have a problem with Supermarket practices, they are often only catering for consumer demands – that’s us. When we talk about reducing food waste, it’s easy to pass the buck, but change has to come from us for the message to get passed along. So when you next embark on your weekly grocery shopping, remember not to fall victim to supermarket promotions, to hand-pick your food with careful thought, and to embrace the oddly-shaped carrots. 

To see the report in full, you can visit: http://www.imeche.org/knowledge/themes/environment/global-food