Innovation and pragmatism are being deployed to tackle the problem of one third of global food production being wasted
Wasted food is arguably one of the most universal and unifying manifestations of a broken system. When one in 10 people on the planet don’t have enough to lead a healthy, active life and the UN foresees an extra three billion people to feed by the end of this century, it seems staggering that we waste food to the value of more than £259bn every year.
Whether it’s the piles of vegetables left rotting in a farmer’s field because harvesting them is not financially viable or the tonnes of fruit rejected by supermarkets on cosmetic grounds, food waste can provoke an understandable sense of outrage, but what seems so simple to redress is actually frustratingly complicated in our complex globalised food system.
However, from grassroots organisations redistributing food on a local level, to progressive national legislation, signs of progress abound.
France hit headlines around the world last month when its national assembly voted unanimously to pass a law preventing large supermarkets from spoiling and throwing away edible food. Produce that may previously have been discarded – sometimes even covered in bleach to deliberately prevent it from being eaten by those foraging from bins – must now be donated to charity or turned into animal feed.
The councillor behind the law, Arash Derambarsh, now wants to convince other nations to legislate for similar bans.
“Food is the basis of life, it is an elementary factor in our existence,” he told the Guardian.
“I have been insulted and attacked and accused of being naive and idealistic, but I became a local councillor because I wanted to help people. Perhaps it is naive to be concerned about other human beings, but I know what it is like to be hungry.”
A petition urging the UK government to adopt a similar stance has gathered nearly 180,000 signatures within a month.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Jordan Figueiredo – who has a day job working in the Castro Valley area of California, teaching businesses and schools about recycling and composting – spends his spare time working on connecting and igniting the movement to end food waste. Six months ago, he set up the Ugly Fruit and Veg Twitter account and began to share photos of misshapen and wonky pieces of produce, accompanied with funny captions. It generated a global wave of support and its 13,800-strong army of followers grows by the day. Its tagline? “Preventing food waste is truly the low hanging fruit…or veg.”
Though he acknowledges the huge scale of the food waste problem, Figueiredo, who also runs EndFoodWaste.org, believes the developments in France and the UK are “very encouraging”.
He told Positive News: “To some extent there is some movement in the US as well, as more cities ban organics from landfill or mandate the separation of organics. As with many regulations, some folks may be resistant at first but adjust later as the new laws benefit society and the environment.
“I am very optimistic that government can and is playing an increasingly important role in ending food waste and the public, all around the world, increasingly supports this as well.”
Scores of grassroots organisations are not waiting for governments to act, though, but tackling food waste themselves. This is happening literally on the ground, in the case of Gleaning Network UK.
Gleaning is the gathering together of any remaining crop left in the fields after harvest, and dates back to the middle ages. Sometimes, food is left to rot in the fields simply because it is not economically viable to harvest it, but today, volunteers gather tonnes of unwanted fruit and vegetables which are donated to redistribution charities such as FareShare and Food For All. The Gleaning Network was founded by Tristram Stuart and his global food waste charity Feedback, and is fast becoming a thriving national project. New hubs have sprung up in the north-west, Bristol, Sussex, London and Kent, and Gleaning Network EU has started in Belgium, France, Greece and Spain, with more hubs planned.
From its beginnings in 2012 until the end of 2014, the Gleaning Network gleaned more than 110 tonnes of produce – equal to more than one million portions of fruit and veg – with the help of more than 500 volunteers across 56 gleaning days. Apples, pears, plums, strawberries, cauliflower, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins and parsnips are among the crops salvaged and put to good use.
“On one gleaning day alone in November 2013, more than 11 tonnes of pumpkins were saved from waste on a farm in Southampton,” explained the network’s Martin Bowman, who liaises with farmers to help save their crops.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation 20 percent of fruit and vegetables grown in Europe are lost from the food chain at farm level, while the Soil Association estimates that 20-40 percent of UK fruit and vegetables are rejected on cosmetic grounds. And this is at a time when food poverty is on the increase in the UK.
The Real Junk Food Project started life as a cafe in Leeds, but not as an ordinary cafe. It fed people on food that would otherwise have been thrown away. Trained chef Adam Smith started to cook up stews, casseroles, soups and cakes with the food and charged through a ‘pay as you feel’ system. Those who were unable to pay could help with the washing up. Within 10 months, he fed more than 10,000 people on 20 tonnes of unwanted food. The project resonated to such an extent that it has inspired more than 45 other cafes, many in the UK, but also as far afield as Brazil, Warsaw and Zurich.
In London alone, Dinner Exchange East organises “lively and convivial” dinner parties made with waste food, while Plan Zheroes map and match up those with surplus food with those in need. Thankfully for planet Earth, many other pioneers are treading a similar path.