Food waste is a messy subject. What can one person’s efforts to record her scraps teach us about reducing our footprint?
Logi, a mythological Nordic warrior, won an medieval eating contest that involved consuming a tray of meat and bones — and the tray itself. (The tray was made of bread in those days, so it’s not such a big deal as it appears.) His gluttonous display was typical of the way men proved they were, indeed, men. The more food consumed, the more powerful the man.
For centuries, now, eating enormous quantities of food has been as necessary among the elite — who use consumption as a marker of social status — as it has been among the poor, who never know when the next famine will occur. The abundance or scarcity of food is one of the world’s paradoxes. We eat a lot, though not quite like Nordic warriors. And at the same time, we waste a lot.
Food waste tops the list of concerns for food system reformers these days. And why not? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization claims that we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce. That’s enough to motivate anyone to reconsider what goes into the trash bin after a meal. The 2013 FAO report, “Food Wastage Footprint, Impacts On Natural Resources,” dissects the mountain of food waste generated each year. Perishable fruits and vegetables occupy much of that mountain for obvious reasons. In spite of advances in food preservation, we haven’t yet found the right technology for eliminating perishability.
“…we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce…”
But before wringing our hands, we should wonder about what constitutes “food wastage,” as the FAO calls food waste. We hear about food waste in the media and at events that reference the same FAO report. As much a consequence of recirculating Internet data, this reliance on a single source can’t be our only source for the war on waste. If the topic is so fundamental to improving our food system, should we be evaluating a range of studies from multiple perspectives? Even without reading the UN report, we might wonder about packaging and about all the leaks along the food supply chain where food becomes waste. Did the FAO really go to a significant number of landfills and weigh all the different types of waste? Might there be other methods for finding food leaks and breaks the food distribution system?
The whole topic is messy. But even without knowing the exact amount of food waste in our food system, I imagine we’d all agree that the problem could use a big solution.
But overwhelming problems often numb our ability to act individually. Wondering what just one person might contribute to heap of wasted resources, I spent a week photographing my food wastage footprint. I became so self-conscious about my food waste that I began eating more trimmings and food before taking a photo, simply because I was embarrassed by the amount of waste that was about to become public record. Being shunned by one’s peers because of an oversized waste footprint could become the next neurosis requiring treatment by modern psychiatrists.
While I worked to overcome the fear of disapproval, I saw that my food waste footprint had grown to the size of Sasquatch by the end of the week. This wasn’t a complete surprise, since the amount of food that I was required to buy in the grocery store was more than one person could eat in a week; remains of a head of lettuce and a quart of milk were all spoiled by the end of the week. Perhaps this is an admonition to never eat alone. More fun and less waste.
While my experiment wasn’t life-transforming, taking the photos did tell an interesting micro-story about one person’s waste footprint.
So what are the takeaways?
I wonder if there is a better way for single people to buy and prepare food. Would more single-serving packaging alleviate the problem? Lately I’ve noticed “Ready to Serve Brown and Wild Rice” from Riviana Foods in packages of two servings, ready to microwave. It might help, but packaging still needs a solution: even my single-serving yogurt leaves me with a foil top and plastic container at the end of the snack.
Would growing my own food lessen the amount of waste, since I could pick just what I needed for a meal and compost the remains each day? Maybe, but that would require a lifestyle change for many of us.
How about portion controls? When I ate out, the waste trail increased. Restaurants, unless you eat exclusively at over-priced, small-plate restaurants, typically serve more than you can eat. In my case, a sandwich was served with a side of coleslaw, which I don’t eat and didn’t see on the menu.
While my micro-experiment was both fun and enlightening, the exercise missed some of the bigger-picture considerations. How can we see beyond the FAO report? Bjorn Lomborg joins the United Nations Food and Agriculture to emphasize the amount of food wasted in the global food system. Lomborg moves beyond the statistic to consider systemic solutions, such as the need for improvements in our global transportation infrastructure. Ronald Bailey’s book The End of Doom points out that we have a highly productive food system that will produce enough food in the future. There’s enough food, it seems, just in the wrong places.
So how do we get all the food to all the right places in the right condition: unspoiled, nutritious and tasty? We could use a focused, concerted effort to address distribution and minimize food left in the field, on the loading dock and in the waste bins of food processors. Those efforts include new packaging, tracking and transport technologies. Everyone, from chefs to consumers, needs a behavior-changing incentive to prepare, serve and consume food in smaller quantities. The move toward selling food in smaller-portioned packages is just a small step in that direction.
These innovations, many of them in the works now, will do much more to lower the amount of food waste than anything revealed in my photos. But, hey, try it yourself. Take your cellphone and snap a few post-meal images of your food trail. What do you see?
The same sense of wonder that called Dr. Robyn Metcalfe to run the great deserts of the world has led her to take on the task of mapping our current food supply. A historian, desert distance runner and food futurist with a lifelong hunger to take on irrational challenges, Robyn Metcalfe marvels at what it takes to simply create a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.