The numbers are almost too large to comprehend. We look at the figures and gasp, wide-eyed and appalled, scarcely able to acknowledge the scale of the issue. Up to 33% of food produced in the world doesn’t get eaten. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes a year. If food waste was a nation state, it would be the third largest contributor to global carbon emissions.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, when the numbers are broken down it begins to look like this: each person in the US throws away the equivalent of a pound (nearly half a kilo) of food a day. That equates to over $2,000 per annum that every family in the country is throwing into the garbage. In the UK and the rest of the developed world, the figures aren’t much better.
There are simultaneously 800 million people in the world that go to bed hungry each night because they don’t have enough to eat. This discrepancy is an unconscionable reality of modern food production, distribution and consumption.
Apathy fuelled by affluence
The seeds sown in the post war era, allowing for the apparent miracle of a near infinite variety of cheaply produced food, are now bearing an unexpected and horribly bitter fruit. An apathy fuelled by affluence has led us here and only now are we really beginning to tackle the issues, causes and consequences.
Put simply, food waste is a product of a bloated supply chain: an interconnected web of complexity that results in overproduction, spoilage, wastage and inefficiency, all driven by one factor: cost.
As chefs, we are told that we are on the front line of this battle against food waste. It is our moral, professional and financial duty to do what we can to stretch every ingredient and find clever ways to avoid throwing out even the smallest morsel.
Of course, small changes do make a difference, especially when removed from the isolation of our own kitchens and placed amid the wider context of the industry. A spare loaf of bread turned into croutons in every restaurant in the country is an awful lot of flour saved. Fermented kale stalks are a good addition to a soup of vegetable offcuts and those gnarly bits of dried out beef bolster the flavour of a jus like nothing else.
However, until there is a seismic and systemic shift in the broader context of our food production and distribution practices, these efforts don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. We want to feel like we can make a difference, but the impact we are having right now is barely a ripple when we need a tidal wave to disrupt an industry that has grown as fat as the populations it feeds.
Creating lasting change
Please don’t think I’m belittling the efforts of well-meaning, hard-working and inspirational chefs – I count myself as a fully paid-up member of that particular club (my restaurant sends no waste to landfill, composts all our leftover food and offers a no-choice menu).
What does need to be addressed, however, is that the top end of the industry is not where the issues are most significant. The reality is that most food waste occurs before the raw ingredients even enter our kitchens. Yes, throwing out perfectly good food is morally appalling, but the greater evil is gross inefficiency in the supply chain created by corporations convincing us we need more choice. In the act of being diligent consumers, we are now complicit in one of the greatest moral injustices in the modern world and I find this a rather bitter pill to swallow.
An attempt to instigate top-down change is all well and good, and the impact of these trailblazers will trickle down, eventually. But, as any student of revolutionary theory will tell you, lasting change only occurs when the masses get hungry. And that doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.
The Secret Chef