“Don’t just leave it!” My mum would exclaim, when I, aged five, would attempt to dodge the copious veggies she had placed unapologetically on my plate. “What about those little starving boys in Ethiopia? They’d love to have that!”
How I used to rail against this constant mantra of waste-awareness. How I used to desperately argue around my mum “Why can’t they have it then?” I begged. “I don’t even like sweetcorn!” My mum, as usual, was resolute.
It worked, though. I am now a food-waste zealot. If something is put on my plate, I eat it. I cook the food in my fridge that looks likely to go off, not the food I fancy. I save grease from fatty meals for seasoning soups. I don’t give a shit about how my fruit looks. I finish my plate in restaurants, even if the meal is massive. I haunt the reduced section in Sainsbury’s, trying to grab stuff before it gets chucked. I overcame profound OCD about drinking from cups of water that had been left out (something about them getting “contaminated” by dust – it wasn’t very rational) because I hated the thought of pouring all that fresh, clean water away.
Most of this is based on my environmental awareness – I know (roughly) how much it costs in energy and resources to raise a chicken, to grow a carrot, to harvest salt. I know how the human project is sailing sedately towards disaster, and I think that we all must do everything we can to slow its progress. But beneath all that right-on ecological education, there still exists the psychical payoff of the sustained guilt-trip my mum worked on me for about ten years.
Initially, obviously, it didn’t work. Children find second-order empathy difficult, as they aren’t neurologically developed enough to cope with the complex field of thought that underpins the more abstract varieties of human kindness. They might be able to cope with “Play nicely, now.” or “Be gentle with that bunny, otherwise you’ll hurt him.” or “Don’t lie to mummy.” But someone along the lines of “We all have a limited amount of resources in our world, of which a small sampling has been placed on your plate. If you waste them, you will be reducing the amount available for everyone else (because you’ll doubtless want to eat something else)” is well beyond their ken. So my mum had to constantly fight with me to get me to eat my bloody dinner.
I won the occasional battle. But she most definitely won the war. During adolescence, when my higher functions started kicking in, all that baby taming my mum did bloomed like a very waste-conscious flower, and I started gobbling down sprouts as though they were manna from heaven. Which naturally, they are.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers have reported today, that 50% of the food we harvest from the Earth and Sea is wasted. That is, in my opinion, an utterly staggering statistic. The idea that so much of the time, energy and material we invest in feeding ourselves is left to rot is staggering, especially considering the rhetoric from the agribusiness lobby claiming that we must adopt GM and other industrial food production methods if we are to stave off mass starvation.
To be honest, the injustice is both natural and social – in a world where countless millions of acres of wildlife habitat are being swallowed up to feed human beings, we should not be wasting a single sprout. And it’s abysmal that none of that wasted food is being directed to where it is truly needed. According to Kate Raworth of Oxfam, we could already feed the world’s population with current yields.
But the fault doesn’t lie with the same people everywhere: “If you’re in the developing world, then the losses are in the early part of the food supply chain, so between the field and the marketplace.” Dr Fox, lead researcher in the team who compiled the report, pointed out. “In the mature, developed economies the waste is really down to poor marketing practices and consumer behaviour.”
That means, us. In the developed world, this is our fault. It may well be that supermarkets encourage us to overbuy with BOGOF offers, and mislabel products to give us the impression they go off sooner than they really do, but in all honesty, neither of these ploys would work if ordinary people showed more inclination to fight waste, or some measure of common sense.
A great many people I know personally lack that inclination. They buy more food when they don’t need any, just because they fancy having something different, leaving an entire fridge-full to rot. They leave leftovers in restaurants rather than ask for a doggybag. They just don’t care.
Popular dispositions are tricky things – in contrast to the demonstrable plasticity of the mind, people have an unerring tendency to assume that they are impossible to shift. Whenever I point out that people need to change the way they view taxation, or nature, or wasting food I always abut against what I’ve come to call the Human Nature Defence. When this is invoked, people say, “Oh, you can’t change X, because it’s human nature isn’t it?” Retailers frequently resort to a variant of this view when defending their practices (as, no doubt, British supermarkets will do in their response to this report), claiming, “We’re just giving people what they want!”
As an anthropologist, I think I’m well placed to give an expert view on what human nature actually consists of. Unlike even the majority of academics, who like most of us exist within a realm of relative cultural homogeneity, anthropology confronts you with the sheer and unexpected diversity of our species being. And let me assure you, dear reader, there is nothing in human nature that says we necessarily must be wasteful of food.
The root cause of all this waste, if not a necessary feature of our being human, is simple – parenting. Going back to the anecdote from my childhood with which I began this article, it should be obvious that my mum had quite a challenge on her hands. She had to struggle against my truculent, infantile fussiness in order to instil in me the basic principle of valuing what you eat. I am sure a great many parents give up, or don’t even bother at all.
Although I am not a parent myself (yet), I know it is a load of hard work. It takes time, effort, love and discipline in copious quantities, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But I think a lot of parents seem to believe that means they are automatically guaranteed respect (at least, from non-parents). So, I’m afraid I’m going to commit a massive faux pas, and offer some advice on parenting.
As a very important caveat – this isn’t directed at single parents, or working parents, or anything like that. I know a great many poor, working, single parents who do a damn-site better job of raising their children than entire families of the spoilt and middle-class. Of the former, I am in awe. Where food waste is concerned, I think the middle-classes are often worse than the poor – they can afford to throw food in the bin.
Nobody expects anyone to be a perfect parent. I certainly don’t. But it just frustrates me that so many parents spend so much time and effort on things that don’t really matter, or even harm their children (such as finding a must-have Christmas present, or imposing on their children certain gender roles). I wish that more parents would spend as much time encouraging their sons to clean their plates, as they do currently encouraging them to play with trucks or take up football. My mum did. And you know what? It worked.