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Ugly Food

About ⅓ of the planet’s food goes to waste. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, we squander 2.9 trillion pounds of food per year. That’s enough to feed everyone globally, more than twice over.

Considering that nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, reducing food waste has become a matter of international urgency. So, where is all that food going?

In developing nations, much is lost after harvesting due to inadequate storage facilities, lack of refrigeration, and proper transportation. Developed nations, on the other hand, tend to waste more food farther down the supply chain. Retailers order, display, or serve too much, while the consumers (you and me) allow food to spoil in the fridge, or toss out food before it expires. 

Wasting food has an environmental toll as well. The resources required to produce food that ends in in the landfill is staggering. Producing food that no one eats uses as much water as the entire annual flow of Volga, Europe’s largest river, uses as much oil as 70 times the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There is also waste from fish farms, slaughterhouses, and fishing vessels. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gasses on the world. Every year, roughly six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are unharvested or unsold, purely for aesthetic reasons. Food grade standards are set by the agriculture industry and grocery stores, which are extremely exacting.

According to Rick Stein, Vice President of fresh foods at Food Marketing Institute, “It’s all about quality and appearance, and only the best appearance will capture share of the consumer’s wallet.” Some of the produce that doesn’t meet the standards will be donated to food banks, chopped up and used in supermarket’s prepared meals or salad bar, but most isn’t donated or recycled. Some markets in Europe and the US have recently implemented the sale of “ugly food” at a discount, but Stein believes there is a better solution: relaxing industry standards.

Tristram Stuart, an Englishman living in New York, runs an organization, Feedback, that campaigns against food waste. From meeting with farmers around the world to hear stories of how much of their crops go to waste for slight imperfections, to meeting with Peruvian members of congress to overturn laws that incentivize dumping excess food over donating it, to working on food waste reduction bills. Stuart is one of the most compelling figures in the international fight. Stuart’s book, Waste, released in 2009, is his investigation into the true cost of what the global food industry throws away. Although the book was critically acclaimed, Stuart knew the data heavy book wouldn’t reach the scope of audience he wanted to reach. He wanted to impact millions so he created Feeding the 5,000, echoing Jesus’ instructions in John 6:12 to “gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted”.

Feeding the 5,000 would become Stuart’s flagship event - a free public feast made entirely of orphaned food. These gatherings would successfully be replicated in 30 cities. Soon, Stuart would be giving speeches around the world and sharply criticizing the food industry’s most powerful players.

In 2013, Stuart spent a week in Kenya, hunting down ingredients for a formal dinner in Nairobi where the United Nations Environment Programme would highlight the problem of food waste. He met with a farmer that was forced by European industry standards to reject 40 tons a week of green beans, broccoli, sugar snap peas and runner beans. Enough food to feed 250,000 people!

Stuart returned a year later with a camera crew to document farmers that were routinely losing half their harvest due to cosmetic standards. After Stuart’s organization, Feedback, publicized images of the rejected beans and exposed the underbelly of the supermarket industry’s standards, U.K. growers were ready to talk. The supermarkets relaxed some of their standards, and agreed to bear the cost if they cancelled orders. Not only would less food and fewer resources be wasted, but farmers might be able to plant fewer acres.

Feedback’s 2015 report on Kenyan green beans was just one achievement that year. By the end of 2015, the U.N. and the U.S. had pledged to cut food waste in half by 2030. Countries and companies are devising and adopting standardized metrics to quantify waste. If the target is met, enough food could be saved to feed at least one billion people.

Here are some tips to reduce your waste footprint:

  • Shop at stores that offer misshapen food at a discount.

  • Shop often. Buy only a few days produce at a time to reduce spoilage.

  • Freeze or can bruised fruit

  • Buy at farmer’s markets

  • Take home leftovers

  • Ask the waiter to hold extras, like bread and butter, that you don’t plan to eat.

  • Encourage restaurants to donate leftovers

  • Eat leftovers on a regular night each week 


Source: National Geographic March 2016 “Want Not” by Elizabeth Royte

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