Published 21 July 2014
Take a look at your fridge. If it’s like those of many Australians, too many of its contents exist in situational limbo between being bought, semi-consumed, and then, some days, weeks or months later, discarded.
A fridge of half-consumed food might seem like the most implausible subject for serious intellectual enquiry. But in the quest to understand and repair the twenty-first century’s dysfunctional food system, it’s a good place to start.
Our current global food system leaves more than 800 million people under-nourished, makes more than 500 million people obese, and unsustainably diminishes our natural resource base. The current ways in which we produce food aren’t feasible for a future planet of nine billion.
Fixing these problems is tough work. It takes good science, clever policies, and political and civic leadership. However, sometimes the best strategies are also the most obvious. The World Bank has estimated that somewhere between one-third and one-quarter of all food produced in the world is wasted. If we can address this, a huge step forward would be taken.
Why is food wasted? In Australia, the ironic cause of much of the problem is our excellence in transport, logistics and packaging. Our easy access to a huge range of food that is packaged and presented for (apparent) freshness, make the problem of food waste seem invisible.
I’m old enough to remember my mum planning our meals. Sunday dinners would be converted through the week into stews and casseroles. My mum did these things because of the cultural repertoire that defined her generation’s attitude towards food. In an age less dependent on refrigeration and with less packaging, doing the most with the food you had was a moral and economic code. The cookbooks of the age celebrated the creative uses of leftovers.
We shouldn’t invoke nostalgia for its own sake. But remembering the past brings the shortcomings of the present into view. Social, economic and technological systems have seduced consumers into false economies. Buying food in bulk may give the suggestion of cost savings, but these savings evaporate if the food is later discarded. All too often, fridges have become transit zones of poor food choices.
The irony is that with microwaves and other supportive technology, we are better positioned than ever to organise food consumption in ways that minimise wastage. However, contemporary consumer mindsets treasure new and different meals every night, rather than planning weekly food cycles. Supermarkets construct and feed these mentalities by glamourising perfection. Misshapen fruit is filtered out of sight. Packaged foods are sold in increasingly idiosyncratic and expensive ways through manipulations of exotic combinations of ingredients.
The horizon is not all bleak. The Think.Eat.Save initiative by OzHarvest in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme and UN Food & Agriculture Organization, brings these issues to the foreground. Among the hipster communities of the younger generation, food is sexy. In my experience as a lecturer at the University of Sydney, the best and the brightest of the next generation all understand the importance of food politics. Volunteer community gardening is the new black.
These trends don’t reach everyone in society equally. For the many households on struggle street, getting a meal with greatest convenience and lowest price remains the priority. But as a society, we are now starting to have a different kind of conversation about food, and one which is bringing the problem of food waste front and centre. A good start is to look inside your fridge, and think about how and why its contents tell a bigger story about the global food system.
We live in a society where we think we’re still better off if we buy in bulk, leave the detritus of our choices in our refrigerators, and then dump it at zero personal cost for our local Council garbage collectors to pick up.
Whether we’re better off is questionable. Whether the planet is better off is undeniably not the case.
Bill Pritchard is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sydney, and leads the food research node of the Sydney Environment Institute. He will be chairing Tackling Food Waste on Thursday 7 August as part of our Food@Sydney seminar series. The event will feature speakers from OzHarvest and Youth Food Movement Australia. To register: click here.