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You are here: Home arrow Articles arrow Conservation and the environment arrow Dustbin - or dinnertable?


Dustbin - or dinnertable?

Written by Jonnyboy

Jonnyboy brings up to date his call to arms on cutting waste from supermarket shopping

Sainsbury's failure to catch up with its main rivals has highlighted one key thing; the consumer likes a well stacked shelf. Criticised for a lack of stock availability, their new CEO confirmed that the company would focus on food and try to keep shelves better stocked, whilst writing off £140M from its now redundant IT system that was expected to deliver huge supply chain improvements.

But in the great supermarket war this means bad news for the environment, the suppliers and inevitably the consumer.  Any drive to maximise stock availability with a perishable item will increase the risk of wastage; you only need to look at the ‘marked down' section in Tesco to see that dairy, fresh foods & vegetables predominate. Consider that nearly all of the mushy fruit on special offer was grown abroad and shipped here and you begin to realise the amount of waste involved.

Recent studies have shown that for example, 1 calorie of energy in a carrot takes 8 calories of energy to transport from South Africa to the UK. If you extrapolate that across the huge swathes of foreign produce filling our supermarket shelves (between 1-2% is local) then a picture of the resource depletion this entails is worryingly clear. No wonder then that at least 20% of our road transport is due to the logistical nightmare that is the supermarket food supply chain.

In fact, as a challenge, head to the nearest supermarket and find some fruit that isn’t foreign.

Many less obvious products also have significant food mile cost; a lorry load of a well known yoghurt shipped from Germany will require 100 gallons of diesel fuel to reach the UK, and that doesn’t include the fuel used crossing the channel by whatever means or that used in onward distribution from the supermarket depot to individual branches.

Supermarkets are understandably coy about the waste generated by their activities, however, Lord Haskins, an adviser to the Government on food issues, estimates that supermarkets throw away 5% of their food. This is the 'tip of the iceberg' compared with the entire supply chain. 'Total waste from the farm to the kitchen table is about 70%,' he claims. Even if you consider 5% to be accurate then that still leaves over 40 million chickens destined for the dustbin rather than the dinner table. In truth the amount wasted will be far higher.

There is even a new breed of ethical consumer sticking up two fingers to the sell by date and exploiting the possibilities of this wastage. The ‘Freegan' - people who eat free food otherwise destined for the dump; surplus produce found in supermarket bins, market stalls and bakery doorways.

But food wasted in the supermarket isn’t the only problem, increasingly food is purchased due to its cosmetic looks rather than its taste, with bizarre supermarket specifications that expect growers to defy nature: uniformity of colour, red/green blush percentages, size grading, even penetromiter density testing. The result is apples, oranges and strawberries of waxwork perfection but with an acceptance rate that can be as low as 30%, that’s 70% wasted food, and this is happening even in developing countries, take this worrying passage from the Felicity Lawrence’s book ‘Not on the label’*:

"..and they had to be straight, curved beans would not do….explained that 35% of beans failed to make the supermarket grade…..most went to waste, even in a country (Kenya) where people go hungry.."

When you consider the humanitarian achievements that could be made by redistributing our resources it becomes almost sickening to comprehend a walk down those brightly lit aisles. Any enterprising hacker who wants to replace Tesco TV with scenes from the Darfur refugee camp would get my support. Heck, I'd stand up and applaud them.

Unfortunately it's the rest of us who must look to our actions and their influence on supermarket activity. Intensive farming practices and our newly found "food on demand" culture, have led to our animals, fruits and vegetables being treated as commodities akin to a bar of soap or DVD. Production is regulated - compressed or increased to suit an ever changing demand created by the weather, advertising, or health scare/diet fad. Consumers contemplating an empty space where their favourite cereal, beer or free range chicken normally resides may turn on their heel in a fit of pique and shop elsewhere, or so the supermarket fears. If we want change, we should be open to the fact that what we came for may not be what we leave with, the spirit of sustainability and seasonality needs to be embraced by us all.

How to achieve that? Well, we need to shop elsewhere in the first place. Using our local resources wisely, shopping locally and in tune with the seasons, all of the great articles posted this week give us plenty of inspiration and advice on how to change our shopping habits in a way that can have far reaching consequences for our wallet, our diet and our planet.

Consider how much of your shopping ends up uneaten and wasted, do you need to buy so much, or can you search the recipe pages here for advice on imaginative vegetable recipes? If you have some land, what about converting the vegetable waste into protein by keeping a few chickens or even some pigs? At the very least chuck it on the compost heap rather than the bin.

The stark fact remains, that if we continue to buy our perishable foods from the supermarket then we are unwittingly supporting a process that requires up to 70% of produce be thrown away before it even reaches us. Based on our own wasteful ways it’s not inconceivable that up to 90% of certain perishable produce grown is destined solely for the landfill. It's we as consumers that have the power to change that.

Visit the Recipes Forum to discuss frugal but satisfying use of your shopping

*Not on the Label: What Really Goes in to the Food on Your Plate, Felicity Lawrence, Penguin 2004