The BBC reports today on a study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that estimates that between one-third and half of all the world’s food — as much as 2 billion tons — is thrown away. The primary reasons for the waste are poor storage, strict sell-by dates, people buying food in bulk, and picky consumers. The report estimates, for example, that 30 percent of the vegetables grown in the United Kingdom aren’t harvested because their appearance isn’t quite up to snuff.
The amount of wasted food is infuriating, given the hunger found across the globe, but it’s also — in part, at least — an inevitable by-product of modern society. We’ve moved far away from a world of families that ate the last withered carrots and turnips in the root cellar, knowing that they had harvested the vegetables themselves months ago and stored them in the same way their families had done for generations. Now we eat food that is produced God knows where, God knows when, by God knows who. If it looks a bit fishy, we’re not going to buy it, or eat it. When you consume canned goods or frozen food, you’re obviously going to pay attention to the “use by” information — and anyone who pushes for expanding the “sell by” envelope will face pitchforks and torches the next time a mass botulism or other food-borne illness strikes.
But we can’s just thrown up our hands, either — and not just because we have to help people who are starving. Food production requires lots of fresh water, which is in short supply. We just can’t afford to devote huge amounts of water to growing vegetables that aren’t eaten. (And we can’t afford to subsidize the growth of crops that aren’t eaten, either, but that’s an issue for another day.)
So, what to do if you are a red-blooded American? How about listening to that inner Mom’s voice — you know, the one that told you to clean your plate and remember that there are starving people in Africa — and only buy what you can eat, and then eat it? Don’t buy the enormous cans of food at Sam’s Club if you don’t honestly think you can finish them off in one setting. Instead of purchasing huge quantities of food on your trip to the neighborhood grocery store, plan on shopping only for the immediate future and making a few more trips as a result.
With New Year’s Day not far behind us, there’s still time for a new resolution. How about resolving to apply Mom’s rules and trying to avoid wasting food this year?