Wednesday, February 07, 2007

food waste

Tristram Stuart, a scavenger in arms, wrote in the Guardian about his experiences as a ‘freegan’.

"Every week, I heave open a supermarket skip and find therein a more exotic shopping list of items than I could possibly have invented - Belgian chocolates, ripe bananas, almond croissants, stone-ground raisin bread - often so much it would have fed a hundred people. A rummage in the bins of the local sandwich store yields another bewildering array, from granola desserts with honey on top to crayfish salad and tuna-filled bagels."

I'm not too keen on these Pret granola desserts myself, they're full of sugar . My favourite is (vegans look away) their Pastrami sandwich. But let's get back to more serious things.

Stuart could afford to buy food; this is his protest against the food waste culture. The figures he brings are appalling. Yearly food waste in the UK is estimated at 15 million tonnes; that's half of the food sold. This wasteful food chain contributes 20% of carbon emissions in the UK; in addition, wasted food which is sent to landfill sites decomposes into toxics and methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. It's all bad.

Stuart has some 'cost-effective' ideas how to change the situation; for example, distributing unsold food through charities. 'If we currently waste nearly half of what we produce, and half of that waste can be avoided, then simply by sorting out this one problem we could slash our emissions by 5%.' He also mentions WRAP (waste reduction action program) whose motto is 'creating markets for recycled resources' and talks about 'working in partnership with businesses and the public...'.

This new-labour-speak makes me a bit nauseous but I do not want to be an ideological purist. Anything to reduce waste is good. But ultimately I think that a global economy with food flying all over the place, and individualistic, stressed and hectic lifestyle inevitably involve large amounts of waste. We need to slow down our life and our economy, not to create new markets within the existing system.

The fundamental problem with these suggestions is that they are underlied by the notion that waste is bad for business, that it doesn’t make economic sense. This is Calvinist Capitalism: working hard, using your resources to the best way, being frugal and saving wherever possible. I don’t think Western free market economies work likes this today. As I understand it, this system is built on rapid growth, short term profit, and large scale considerations. It prefers excess to frugality; too much to too less. Better throw away 50 sandwiches each night, than a customer not finding their favourite kind or having to wait for someone in the kitchen to make it. A food outlet chain (cafes, restaurants, or supermarkets) works by being efficient, standard, and large scale; all these mean food waste.

True, waste is bad for business because it involves loss; but for the overall system it’s good because it boosts demand. When it comes to ethical or environmental implications, this system is completely neutral. The bottom line is numbers in a bank account.

More than food waste is at stake. Our world is facing an environmental holocaust and an energy and water crisis; our political-economic system cannot rise to these challenges. It is unreasonable to expect the State to take the lead; the State will not do anything to harm economic prosperity or voters’ sense of good life. We need long-term planning and radical solutions, which will no doubt be painful in the short term. One cannot expect these from a system built on quarterly profits reports and four-yearly elections.

This, at least, is my personal conclusion, based on political and historical analysis as much as it is based on my intuitive investigations into the bins of the Wholesale Market.


Max said...

It can't be Pret, they don't sell bagels.

mink said...

I have a recollection of skipping a salmon bagel from them a long time ago; or was it EAT? in any case it's been a while. I like their new salt beef wrap: perefect for a light snack on Waterloo Bridge, on the way home