Picture this. It’s February in Britain; mid-winter. You’re strolling up the supermarket aisles and you can’t find the asparagus. Your eyes flitter along the endless rows of vegetables and fruits. Amongst the usual suspects, ‘native’ to Britain at this time of year is a plethora of perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables that have migrated miles from all corners of the globe: kumquats, raspberries, beans of every variety, avocadoes, pomegranate. But where’s the asparagus?
It sounds audacious, but this sense of self-entitlement has become the norm: it’s usual for us to expect to eat whatever we want, whenever we want it, regardless of the season.
It’s this attitude that is partially to blame for the fact that a third of all food produced in the world is wasted at some point along its journey from farm to fork. We want to eat asparagus all year round, so we have to grow enough. And what if the asparagus is misshapen? Well then it’s left at the farm gate, wasted before it even reaches our supermarket shelves.
Let’s put this into perspective. By 2050 our population is predicted to swell to a staggering 9 billion. Currently, there are 840 million people living in hunger, unable to access sufficient food to meet their most basic needs. Yet a third of our global food production – around 1.3 billion tonnes – is wasted; an amount that could feed two billion extra people each year, thus going a long way to address poverty and malnutrition.
This wasted food reflects an economic loss of £470 billion annually, but it doesn’t only impact on our purse strings. Recent statistics suggest that this amount of food waste accounts for 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. Consider, too, the inputs required to produce this wasted food – the land, water, fertilisers and misdirected labour.
The complexity of the challenge
Food waste occurs all along our complex supply chains, and developed and developing countries have a very different set of challenges to overcome. Here in the developed world, our challenges lie predominantly with the consumer and our attitude towards food, as described above: a culture of perfectly aesthetic, readily available food, year-round, and a growing trend towards ever shorter sell-by dates. In our increasingly throw-away society, we fail to account for the true cost of our resources and until recently, waste has not been widely regarded as a critical issue.
In developing countries, it’s an entirely different scenario; very little food is wasted by consumers. Waste is largely produced within the harvesting, drying, storage and transport stages of small-scale production, often as a result of insufficient knowledge and infrastructure, and an inability to maximise efficiencies. The knock-on effects of this include reduced income, which further perpetuates the challenge of local food insecurity.
Speeding up the distribution of food along the supply chain through improved infrastructure would go a long way to reducing the loss caused by food spoilage and thus, waste. But the capital investment to support such a development makes it unfeasible in most regions.
So how do we progress from here?
Retailers are already doing a huge amount to reduce their waste. Take Sainsbury’s, a UK supermarket chain that achieved zero waste to landfill in summer 2013. These steps are promising, but we need a greater emphasis on reducing waste through the supply chain, and at consumer level.
Smarter packaging has a big role to play in protecting food during transit, whilst also improving its longevity, freshness, and overall shelf life. For instance, Marks and Spencer’s “It’s Fresh” strips on the inside of their fruit packaging absorb the ethylene hormone that causes fruit to ripen and become mouldy.
And critically, there’s also the need for a culture change, to revert back to a society where food was valued as a commodity, rather than taken for granted. WRAP’s “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign in the UK helps to raise awareness about food waste, but it’s a drop in the ocean. We need a complete paradigm shift away from our 24/7 culture, of cheap, readily available, unseasonal food. So before you seek out the perfectly shaped asparagus, it’s time to think again.