I decided that I would talk to the church kids about food waste, and was doing some preparatory reading, only to discover that I had vastly underestimated the true extent of the problem. First of all, I had failed to appreciate how much waste, especially in poorer countries, is caused by inadequate harvesting and poor distribution. But I was amazed at the estimate of total annual food waste in the world: 1.3 billion tonnes and increasing. This means that about 30% of all farmland is producing food that will be wasted. 15 million tonnes are wasted annually in the UK, including almost a third of all lettuce and quarter of all bread.
There is an assumption that if we were not wasting so much we could feed all the starving people in the world. This may be no more factual than my mother’s assertion that the starving children of India might somehow benefit from the uneaten lettuce on my plate. Even then I wondered how she would get the lettuce to them, albeit she was a woman of outstanding determination. Nevertheless if the system can put guavas on my supermarket shelves it could probably make sure that available foodstuffs got to where they are most needed.
But the sheer quantity of waste is staggering, because it must be the unintended result of an equally huge communal carelessness. How did we get to be so bad at estimating the amount of food we need and so tolerant of packaging that forces us to buy quantities in excess of our requirements? The packaging isssue is the responsibility of the food trade, especially of supermarkets and is an example of the truth that capitalism is nothing to do with the needs of the buyer: the needs of the seller are much more important.
Domestic food waste on the other hand makes me much more uncomfortable, because my own household always has the heaviest food and packaging bins in the street. By far. We go through more bottles, more bags, more plastic containers, more cardboard boxes than anyone else, and consign more pasta, rice, bread, and vegetables – we are vegetarians – to the swill pail than the family next door with three kids. As we would also claim to be good recyclers – good? We’re unbeatable- with a concern for the planet, this is hard to explain and impossible to justify. And there’s more! There’s all the Internet purchase packages that are too big to go in the bins, which have to be taken to the tip by car. Where are we going wrong?
1. We don’t really plan our weekly eating but shop daily for our evening meal.
2. We try to stick to a veggie diet even when this means buying more than we need.
3. At least once a week we use ready meals, buying too much rather than too little.
4. We’re getting older and often find we can’t eat as much as we thought we would.
5. We are quite well-off and spend a greater proportion of our income on food than most people.
We’ve noted these behaviours and are trying to modify them, but I’m not sure that change will be either radical or speedy.
But we would like it to be.
The waste of food reveals a lack of appreciation of it; a carelessness that denies any reverence for gifts of nature or agriculture. People become consumers of food rather than eaters of their daily bread. The modesty of daily sustenance and the extravagance of occasional feasts are equally negated by routine overconsumption.
The prayer of Jesus is relevant:
“Give us this day our daily bread”
1. It acknowledges that no matter how hard-earned, daily bread is a gift.
2. It speaks of “our bread”, that is, nourishment for the relevant community, rather than “my bread”. It includes a responsibility for sharing.
3. It is a daily prayer asking for daily provision. Of course it does not rule out wise storage, but it refers to the old story of the manna in the desert which couldn’t be gathered in bulk and stored because it became degraded after a day. If we try to secure all possible future supply we go against the teaching of Jesus.
4. It asks for bread not caviar. A slightly mocking phrase from my middle class Glaswegian culture comes to mind, “a modest sufficiency” is the ideal.