Food waste – and how science can help

PUBLISHED: 11:42 06 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:59 06 December 2013

Tristram Stuart explaining the problem of food waste 
© Isabelle Adam, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tristram Stuart explaining the problem of food waste © Isabelle Adam, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Inspired by listening to food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart, Lisa Martin explores the issue of food waste and how science is helping to solve the problem.

British scientists have used traditional breeding methods to produce ‘Super broccoli’ (Beneforté) that contains high levels of a cancer-fighting nutrient called glucoraphanin. © Steven Lilley, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)British scientists have used traditional breeding methods to produce ‘Super broccoli’ (Beneforté) that contains high levels of a cancer-fighting nutrient called glucoraphanin. © Steven Lilley, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Imagine there are 50 people in a room. Twenty-five of those people have more food than they need to survive, while the other 25 people do not have enough food. The people with lots of food eat what they want and throw the rest out of the window, leaving the other people in the room to starve.

This wouldn’t happen in real life, would it? Surely the people with too much food would share it with those who don’t have enough?

And yet, if we scale up this scenario, this is what happens every single day. Up to 40% of the food produced by and for British consumers will end up in the bin, while we only have to turn on the TV to see that people around the world are starving.

I was fortunate enough to attend a free public lecture at Warwick University last week. The speaker was Tristram Stuart, who is the author of two books and an activist leading campaigns to challenge policies on what we do with our food waste.

Tristram showed us some shocking photographs. Dumpster bins full of the crusty ends of bread loaves, rejected by the pre-packed sandwich industry. Hoards of Costa Rican bananas banned by British supermarkets for being ‘siamese twins’ (apparently quite a common phenomenon in the banana world). Piles of puny British parsnips too small for our shelves.

Supermarkets are in the habit of buying more food than they can sell because we are less likely to shop with them if their shelves look empty. Supermarket competition means that each store must have the best, freshest, most perfect-looking produce.

This puts unrealistic pressure on our growers to produce more food, perfect food, and food at a low price – which inevitably creates waste, especially when the weather is poor or pests attack.

Despite this pressure, we as consumers expect more, buy more, and ultimately pay more for our food.

Tristram believes we need a change in social attitudes to stop this downward spiral. If we only buy what we need, British supermarkets will demand less from growers, and a lot of food that would otherwise be wasted could be redistributed to where it is most needed.

However frugal we are, there will always be food waste: the inedible things like vegetable peelings, apple cores and banana skins. But if we disposed of our food waste properly, it could be used for all sorts of valuable purposes.

Be honest, how many of you put your food waste into your ‘green’ wheelie bin? I’ll admit that I don’t. While we’ll gladly put our grass clippings and hedge trimmings into the green bin every so often, I’m usually too lazy to put my kitchen waste outside!

So, I was pleased to discover that Warwickshire councils are offering free kitchen caddies to help us recycle our food waste. These are small buckets kept in the kitchen, and used to collect food waste over several days. You then empty the bucket, including the compostable liner, into your green wheelie bin at your convenience. If you haven’t got one, give your local council a call!

My local council turns green waste into compost, but there are lots of other things can be done. Tristram, founder of “The Pig Idea,” believes that we need a return to the post-war practice of feeding food waste to pigs, thus freeing up land used for animal crops, and simultaneously solving a landfill problem.

Another option is to feed our food waste into anaerobic digestion (AD) plants. When food decomposes, methane gas is produced – this can be extracted and used as fuel. There are several AD plants around the UK, and although the process is still relatively inefficient, it is better than landfill and scientists – including a group at the University of Warwick – are researching ways to make it better.

Horticultural science is also helping to reduce the burden of food waste by carrying out all sorts of interesting work to increase the shelf life of fresh produce, combat crop pests and diseases, and increase the nutritional content of foods so that we need less to meet our needs.

Every time we buy more food than we need, or waste food, that food is taken off the world market and is not available for someone else who really needs it.

I’d urge you all to think about this as you do your Christmas food shopping this year. Do you really need piles of Brussels sprouts that no-one even likes, or a 20lb turkey for a family of four?

Lisa Martin

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