Books: our guilty secret

The food thrown away each day in the UK and the US alone could feed 1.5 billion people. Tristram Stuart’s Waste, writes Fiona Harvey, should make us all feel deeply ashamed.

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal
Tristram Stuart
Penguin, 2009

Next time you pick up a lunchtime sandwich, take a moment to think about where it has come from. Think of the effort it took to grow the wheat for the bread, to feed the cows to make the cheese, to cultivate the salad from seed. Imagine if you took a few bites from it and simply threw the rest straight in the bin. And if you did that every day, with everything you ate.

Supermarkets and sandwich chains regularly discard a quarter as many sandwiches as they sell. Most of that food is perfectly edible, but little of it is given away to the poor or homeless. Instead, it is destroyed and often sent to landfill. Meanwhile, one billion people go hungry, in a globalised economy.

Consumers are no better. In the United Kingdom alone, according to government estimates, a third of the food we buy goes into the bin. The appalling amounts wasted in restaurants and fast-food eateries is another story. Tristram Stuart’s Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal lays bare our wasteful habits, from the farm to shrink-wrapped supermarket packaging and beyond. Stuart, a “freegan” and environmental campaigner, has based his book on painstaking research carried out over several years of first-hand experience of foraging in supermarket bins, as well as interviews with company executives and trawls through the meagre data provided by governments and businesses.

The book, with 68 pages of detailed notes and 69 pages of bibliography, bristles with facts but points also to the huge gaps in our knowledge of waste. Most retailers, for instance, prefer not to say how much food they waste, regarding it as a trade secret. Giving it away would put them at a competitive disadvantage, they tell Stuart.

Waste is certainly one of the most important environmental books to come out in years. But it is more than that. It is an indictment of our consumer culture that should make us all feel deeply ashamed. The scale of our food waste problem – and its effect on the developing world – revealed in this book will leave you shocked. And, the author hopes, demanding change.

Avoiding the unnecessary wasting of food is deeply ingrained in most cultures. “Your eyes are bigger than your belly” was how children who helped themselves to more than they could eat were scolded in the Belfast of my childhood. Those who failed to finish, or gorged themselves on too much, would be reminded first of the starving children in Africa then, for good measure, of the Irish famine of the 1840s.

We need not go back so far to discover raw memories of food shortages. Rationing during the second world war and early 1950s left its mark on British life for decades, and famines during and following the war scarred Europe and parts of Asia. In the past two decades, we have seen famines in Africa roll horrifically across our television screens.

Human societies have found ingenious ways to eke out our valuable food resources: to store, pickle and preserve; to find uses for byproducts; to fatten animals on scraps; and even to burn or distil the last residues. Much of our cultural heritage is defined by what we eat. As Stuart reminds us in his chapter-headings – quotations from the Bible, the Koran and folk sayings – we have evolved elaborate rules and customs that embody the imperative to use food efficiently.

Yet our culture of thrift, built up over millennia, seems to have broken down within a few decades into a culture of carelessness. The food wasted each day in the United Kingdom and the United States alone would be enough to alleviate the hunger of 1.5 billion people – more than the global number of malnourished. How did this happen?

Retailers must shoulder a large part of the blame. The illusion of plenty they like to foster, by constantly refilling shelves and ensuring there is always more food than can be bought in a day, comes in for an excoriating attack. These practices, in turn, force suppliers to overproduce for fear that if the retailer runs out of a product, they will be held to blame.

If this sounds like poor economics, it isn’t. Food has become so cheap in most developed countries that retailers make more profit from selling one more sandwich than they lose from throwing it in the bin if it remains unsold. So over-stacking the shelves is a no-brainer.

Food producers play along because they need to keep their contracts with retailers, and they incorporate the cost of waste into their products.

Stuart records seeing stacks of ready-meals, metres high, being crushed at a food producer’s plant instead of being sold. They had not even passed their “sell by” date – it was just that the retailer decided it did not need so many. They were retailer branded, so could not be sold elsewhere. The edible food had to be landfilled.

Red tape does not help. Confusion over “best before”, “sell by” and “display untildates causes massive waste of edible food. So did the over-regulation, until recently, of food sizes and shapes by the European Union. As a result of a knee-jerk reaction by the UK government after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, food scraps from school kitchens and the like cannot even be given to pigs as swill.

Stuart catalogues appalling waste all through the food supply chain: the farmer whose tasty, blemish-free carrots are only deemed fit to feed animals because they are a mite too bendy to be sold in supermarkets, which assume buyers can only cope with straight vegetables; retail chains that padlock their bins or deliberately spoil the edible contents, for fear their customers will forage in them; consumers who fall for buy-one-get-one-free offers to buy food they will not eat.

Wasting food in rich countries cannot be seen in a vacuum. It has a disastrous effect on the poor. Cheap food is an illusion – the pressure on agricultural land for people to feed themselves and produce for export markets is causing widespread deforestation in the Amazon, south-east Asia and Africa, and soil degradation across the world. Our careless waste pushes up prices for globalised commodities such as grain and rice, forcing poor people to go hungry or beggar themselves.

This book exposes all of these effects clearly, logically and readably. It made me more angry than any book I have read for a long time.

Fiona Harvey
is the Financial Times’ environment correspondent

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009