“Simon Says” – Junk food
The tipper truck drove down the dirt track to a pretty typical municipal dump. This one was in New Zealand. As usual it reversed up to the edge of the ever increasing pile of waste and started to raise its huge carrier. Immediately the seagulls got excited as the red waste started to slide out of the rear. They moved in for scraps, but this time it was a Klondike for gulls. Tonne upon tonne of fresh prime fish, thousands in number, slithered onto the dump site. This was a sight that has stayed with me for years. Not just because this was a wicked waste of limited natural resources, but worse than that it was a species of fish called orange roughy which can live for 150 years. What had happened was a trawler had completely fished out a seamount in the Indian Ocean, taken the catch home, but had been unable to find a market. The seamount may never be repopulated. A shocking depletion of a natural resource that ended up as waste.
At the other end of the scale, we’ve all been guilty of throwing out food that is probably good but past its sell by date. There are similar, if not so harrowing, stories of food waste from developed countries around the world – tomatoes, carrots, milk, the list goes on. We’ve all seen farmers in front of piles of carrots too ugly to sell, or skips behind supermarkets filled with fine food a millisecond out of date.
The quantities of food wasted are shocking: 40% of all food in the US, and 88 million tonnes per year in the EU worth 143 billion euros. The UK is at the top of waste dump in the EU with 15 million tonnes of food wasted per year, 7.3 million tonnes of which going to landfill. The social implications of this huge waste are well publicised: 8.4 million UK families struggle to put food on the table, and we pay the higher prices that this waste maintains. There is a strong correlation between income and waste with poorer households letting less go to waste.
But what about the environment?
The impacts on our environment are less publicised but are profound in Dorset and across the world. Perhaps most obviously there is the waste of land that this causes. Worldwide about one-third of farm land area is used to grow food that is wasted. Within Dorset that average may well be different, but the principle is the same. A huge amount of land that could be used for nature and wildlife, either in whole blocks, or within current farming systems, has been lost because of the over-production necessitated by food waste.
Then there’s the resources that go into food production that are also wasted. It takes about 15,400 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef and 1,600 litres to produce just 1 kg of bread. Unbelievable! Worldwide some boffin has estimated that 550 billion cubic metres of water are wasted on crops we never eat. In this time of ever decreasing water resources at home and abroad, this has to be reduced. Food that goes to landfill is not only a serious waste of a diminishing landfill resource especially in the UK, but is also a major climate change driver. The lack of oxygen in a landfill causes gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and the greenhouse gas methane. We have to do all we can to reduce such gases. Think also of the energy that goes into food that is wasted in the form of fuel for tractors, electricity etc.
From compost heaps to mashed potatoes
The solutions are well documented but hard to achieve. They need to be at all stages in the food chain from production on the farm, through retail, to disposal. The French government banned supermarkets from destroying unsold food, obliging them to give it to charities or for other uses such as animal feed. We have a lot more work to do to accept produce that does not look perfect. Why waste a mountain of carrots because they aren’t a standard shape? Many Councils including Dorset (9,300 tonnes per quarter) and Bournemouth (8.4 tonnes per day) separately collect food waste and Poole collects garden waste only, all of which greatly reduces the quantity of landfill, but that isn’t the norm in England, though it is in Wales which has a far better record.
I feel in Dorset and the UK, perhaps controversially, that this is a symptom that we don’t value or pay enough for food which does not reflect the environmental cost of production. Farmers need to be better rewarded for their work and some of that reward passed on to protect the health of the environment from which the food is derived. Conversely I don’t have much sympathy for a farmer stood in front of a huge pile of root vegetables to be wasted because they are the wrong shape. We all have to get better at innovating and using other products such as diced or mashed veg, thus also value-adding the product.
Let’s beat this
Wasted food is a social, economic and environmental scourge of our modern society. In these days of spiralling populations, greater competition for land, wildlife being squashed to the margins, and an ever more noticeably changing climate, this is one issue with big impacts for conservation that we all as individuals can do something about.
By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps.
Top photo – Orange roughy being dumped in New Zealand; middle photo – the Gussage stream (© DWT) surrounded with fields in Dorset; bottom photo – maize being harvested.