Logi, a mythological Nordic warrior, won an medieval eating contest that involved consuming a tray of meat, bones, and the tray itself. (The tray was made of bread in those days, so not such a big deal as it appears.) His gluttonous display was typical of how men proved they were, indeed, men. The more food consumed, the more powerful the man.
For centuries now, eating enormous quantities of food has been necessary to maintain one’s social status among the elite as much as it was among the poor who never knew when the next famine would occur. The abundance or scarcity of food is one of the world’s paradoxes. We eat a lot, not quite like Nordic warriors, and at the same time, we waste a lot.
Food waste tops the list of concerns for food system reformers these days. And why not? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization claims that we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce. That’s enough to motivate anyone to reconsider what goes into the trash bin after a meal. The 2013 FAO report, Food Wastage Footprint, Impacts On Natural Resources, dissects the mountain of food waste generated each year. Perishable fruits and vegetables occupy much of that mountain for obvious reasons. In spite of advances in food preservation, we haven’t yet found the right technology for eliminating perishability.
But before wringing our hands, we should wonder about what constitutes food wastage, as the FAO calls food waste. We hear about food waste in the media and at events that reference the same FAO report. As much a consequence of recirculating Internet data, this reliance on a single source can’t be our only source for the war on waste. If the topic is so fundamental to improving our food system, should we be evaluating a range of studies from multiple perspectives? Even without reading the UN report, we might wonder about packaging and about all the leaks along the food supply chain where food becomes waste. Did the FAO really go to a significant number of landfills and weigh all the different types of waste? Might there be other methods for finding food leaks and breaks the food distribution system?
The whole topic is messy. But even without knowing the exact amount of food waste in our food system, I imagine we’d all agree that the problem could use a big solution.
Overwhelming problems often numb our ability to act individually. Wondering what just one person might contribute to a heap of wasted resources, I spent a week photographing my food wastage footprint. Although not a life-transforming experiment, taking the photos told a micro-story about one person’s waste footprint.
I became so self-conscious about my food waste, that I began eating more trimmings and food before taking a photo, simply because I was embarrassed by the amount of waste that was about to become public record. Being shunned by one’s peers because of an oversize waste footprint could become the next neurosis requiring treatment by modern psychiatrists.
While overcoming the fear of disapproval by my peers, I saw that my food waste footprint grew and became the size of Sasquatch by the end of the week. This wasn’t a complete surprise, since the amount of food that I was required to buy in the grocery store was more than one person could eat in a week: remains of a head of lettuce, a quart of milk, were all spoiled by the end of the week. Perhaps this is an admonition to never eat alone. More fun and less waste.
So what are the takeaways, so to speak? I wonder if there is a better way for single people to buy and prepare food. Would more single-serving packaging alleviate the problem. Lately I’ve noticed “Ready to Serve Brown and Wild Rice” from Riviana Foods in packages of two servings, ready to microwave. Would growing my own food less the amount of waste, since I could pick just what I needed for a meal and could compost the remains of the day? Maybe, but that would require a lifestyle change for many of us. How about portion controls? When I ate out, the waste trail increased. Restaurants, unless you eat exclusively at over-priced, small-plate restaurants, typically serve more than you can eat. In my case, a sandwich was served with a side of coleslaw, which I don’t eat and didn’t see on the menu. Packaging still needs a solution: my yogurt snack still delivers a foil top and plastic container even after the yogurt disappears.
While my micro-experiment was both fun and enlightening, the exercise missed some of the bigger-picture considerations. How can we see beyond the FAO report? Bjorn Lomborg joins the United Nations Food and Agriculture to emphasize the amount of food wasted in the global food system. Lomborg moves beyond the statistic to consider systemic solutions, such as the need for improvements in our global transportation infrastructure. Ronald Baily’s new book, The End of Doom, points out that we have a highly productive food system that will produce enough food in the future. So there’s enough food, it seems, just in the wrong places.
So how do we get all the food to all the right places in the right condition, unspoiled, nutritious, and tasty? We could use a focused, concerted effort to address food distribution, before the food reaches consumers, will minimize food left in the field, on the loading dock, and in the waste bins of food processors. Those efforts include new packaging, tracking, and transport technologies. Everyone, from chefs to consumers, needs a behavior-changing incentive to prepare, serve, and consume food in smaller quantities. The move towards selling food in smaller portioned packages is a step in that direction.
These innovations, many of them in the works now, will do much more to lower the amount of food waste than anything revealed in my photos. But, hey, try it yourself. Take your cellphone and snap a few post-meal images of your food trail and send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or for Twitter, use #myfoodwaste to create the story of your own waste footprint.