How we became the throwaway generation
Published 15/11/2007 | 00:00
If there's one thing that characterises our market-driven economy of the 21st Century, it's waste. It's endemic in the system and it starts with our attitude to natural resources.
Somehow the human psyche seems incapable of ascribing value to anything that's abundant. So when large amounts of cod were discovered off Newfoundland's Grand Banks, we plundered the seas, catching and selling the fish cheaply, until there was literally not a cod left. That's a story that's being repeated all around the world and gradually it's dawning on people that the ocean's bounty is not infinite. We need to manage our resources if we want to go on harvesting.
In Europe we have cheap food. It's cheap because as a percentage of our disposable income, food accounts for about 10pc. In global terms that's cheap, and because it's cheap we see no harm in throwing it away. Elsewhere on the planet people are forced to spend up to 100pc of their income to feed themselves. We are living with a legacy of a cheap food policy, where we haven't put a realistic price on food. To go back to the cod, we never added in the replacement cost to the final price.
This unwillingness to add in the replacement cost has left us with unmanaged oceans and declining stocks. This shortfall has put the production of not only farmed fish, but beef and poultry too into the hands of large conglomerates whose chief interest is not providing us with high-quality foods, but simply cheap foods. When you consider that you can buy a 1,200-gramme chicken for less than the price of a pint of beer, you begin to suspect that something's gone awry with the food market.
BBC Radio 4 conducted research for its program Costing the Earth, which found that the UK wastes an estimated £20 billion worth of food a year. They arrived at this figure using statistics from the British Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It works out at €600 worth of wasted food for every adult, a staggering sum that would go a long way towards feeding sub-Sahelian Africa.
There is no reason to suppose that these statistics aren't replicated pro-rata here, since the food distribution systems and consumer buying habits are much the same.
The waste begins in the fields. Google 'food waste' and you can find endless examples of farmers who were forced to let crops rot in the fields because they didn't quite match up to the supermarkets' ideas of perfect produce. Thus apples and potatoes with small blemishes are often rejected by supermarkets and so perfectly good food goes to waste.
The waste then continues on the shelves. At the end of each day vast numbers of sandwiches are disposed of and industrial-sized skips are filled nightly by supermarkets dumping food that has reached its 'display until' or 'sell by' date. It's still perfectly good to eat and that date is nothing to do with food safety, simply a means of helping retailers control their stocks. It's estimated that the UK retail sector throws away three million tons of food a year.
And then there's the waste from home. I know plenty of people who think a 'best before' date means that the food is poisonous the day after. A moment's thought and you realise that that's nonsense. 'Best before' is just that. The food is at its best before that date and will go into decline thereafter, but unless the food is eggs you have plenty of time to eat it safely after the 'best before' date.
The obsession with 'best before' dates throws up some truly bizarre examples. I found a packet of salt that said on the back 'This salt comes from the salt mines of Silesia, where it was laid down in a primordial sea 350 million years ago. Best before October 2008.'
Salt, or sodium chloride, is stable and imperishable, which is why it's been used since time immemorial for preserving foods. Putting a 'best before' on salt is laughable.
There are other foods, too, where a 'best before' should be taken with a pinch of salt. Olive oil, if stored in the dark, will last forever. Amphorae of Roman olive oil have been found and the oil inside was still good. Dried pasta too will keep for years as long as it's dry.
If we're to reduce this monumental pile of waste, we're going to have to use common sense rather than relying slavishly on some arbitrary date. Use your nose, smell the food. If it has any off odours, bin it -- even if it hasn't reached its 'best before' date.
Remember that the 'best before' date has enormous margins of safety built in, just to be sure that even improperly stored foods will still be edible. If the food is properly stored as per the label you have a good 10pc extra time to consume it.
A vast amount of household waste is food. Even after we've thrown away food from our cupboards, we go on to throw away leftover food after a meal. This is an entirely new habit, since only a short time ago leftovers were recycled into new meals. Cottage pie and shepherd's pie were invented as a way to use up leftovers from beef and lamb roasts. Leftover vegetables went into the soup tureen, stale bread went into bread and butter pudding, scraps of fruit went into cabinet pudding. Peelings, corings and other scraps went to the pigs or the hens.
Nearly 20pc of household waste today is food. Thousands of tons of it go to landfill sites where it feeds rats and sea gulls, before rotting to produce more methane, a greenhouse gas. It's a crazy state of affairs and when you consider how many starving people that food could have fed, it begins to look deeply immoral.
The EU has issued a directive that means we have to reduce our waste by 45pc by 2020. Unless we take a grip on food waste, that's going be a struggle.
So good we served it twice
There are some really simple things that you can do that cuts down your food waste, other than feeding it to your dog, hens or pigs.
Don't throw away old bread -- let it harden and put it into a blender to make bread crumbs. Keep them in an air-tight jar and you'll never need to buy them again.
I always tend to make too much pasta, mainly because I like it cold when all the flavours have really developed. But if you don't like cold pasta, 'al forno' is the answer. That's Italian for 'in the oven', like lasagna. Layer your leftover pasta into a baking dish and cover each layer with a béchamel. That's a simple white sauce with some grated nutmeg. Crumble some mozzarella in as well for extra interest. Sprinkle some Parmesan on the top layer and warm it through in the oven. It's addictively good.
Break up the remains of a roast chicken, cover it with water and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so. Take out the chicken pieces and pull off all remaining meat and skin. Strain the water and return it to the pot. Add your chicken pieces and blend. If you like, thicken the soup with flour. Add salt and some black pepper to taste and there's your wholesome chicken soup.