Food waste has grown into a global epidemic. One third of edible food is wasted every day. According to the FAO food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$ 990 billion. “That is shocking, that is shameful”, said Massimo Bottura, the star chef behind one of the best restaurants in the world. We have to do something about this unsustainable habit that the abrupt swing to abundance from poverty for masses inconspicuously injected into our lifestyles. Food waste is cancerous for the insatiable humanity. It metastases with every newborn citizen of the planet, who ignores how food is produced and used.
We cannot afford to waste the Mother Earth’s bounty, for there is not a limitless supply of food. Famines of the past should have taught us respect for all natural ingredients that wholesomely nourish us. Next to oxygen and water, we live because we eat.
The circle of loss for everyone
Food waste is a whale of a loss for business and us. Fooled by superficial perfection of shapes and colours we succumbed to the artifice of the food industry. Artificial beauty is a lucrative business in the 21st century. Yet, the precious source of nourishment is forlorn during production, transport, retail, and all the way to being served to us. The red flag of shame also blazes at the end of the food chain – the consumer. According to NRDC in the US alone half of the daily calories recommended for adults are wasted.
The abuse of the greenhouse gas emissions generated to deliver to the shelves of our homes, the plates, and finally to our mouths is essentially unethical. Wasting the food that we were meant to eat should shriek guilt in any responsible individual. Our societal norms need to be realigned and incentives by governments encouraged globally.
Clashing philosophies of our past: when imperfection was celebrated
By shunning the real organic produce with its naturally ruffled surface, freckled skin, and sweetness attracting the fine palates of the worms, we waste food. In nature irregularity is attractive. A meadow bursting with biodiversity allures us more than the uniform gardens of tulips in the Netherlands. For sameness gets boring. The Japanese wabi-sabi celebrating organic imperfection crafted by hands had been overshadowed by “crafted”, with abundant pesticides treated “perfect” fruits displayed like jewels at pricy Tokyo stores. In various realms we seek perfection, but it is a construct that changes alongside the shifting cultural and social norms. Let’s embrace diversity in the challenged millennium of fast-paced global migration.
We consumers can buy aesthetically imperfect produce, especially when it was organically farmed. Health and taste are more important that the superficial looks. Snact makes deliciously sustainable snacks sourced from surplus fruit that would otherwise be discarded for superficial imperfections. Some juice makers do the same for their liquid vitamin bombs.
Using every morsel intellectually stimulates us and caters to human resourcefulness. Our ancestors not only preserved (dried, fermented, pickled) foods for the less abundant seasons, but also used most parts of plants and animal offal to make the most from the limited bounty – catch or crop. Not only the finest cuts were served, intestinal wall was filled with meat and blood for sausages, buckwheat and rice husks filled the pillows, kidneys were made into nourishing stews. British and Scottish cuisines were particularly apt on using the whole animal in cooking. St Johns restaurant in London is still considered as one of the finest dining spots in the country, but not everywhere serving “off-cuts” could be included in the luxurious dining experience. Culture plays an essential role in what we consider edible or attractive to eat.
INDIVIDUAL ACTION AGAINST FOOD WASTE that saves you money, is good for your health and the planet
Individuals tend to markedly underestimate the amount of their food waste, I learned during the Climate Collaborative conference recently. Retailers and food businesses can better track their waste based on their accountancy, expenditure, but now also with technology like the Spoiler alert software. Increasingly, restaurants offer take home bags or boxes to take your unfinished meal home for later consumption. The cultural disease of 20th century can be cured by activism of the 21st century and by global-scale governmental action like donating edible food from supermarkets and canteens to charities in France and Italy, charging for waste in Korea or the incentive to work with feed recycling companies in Japan.
Where you can reduce food waste?
At home: Herbs, vegetables, raw dairy and fresh seafood are the most sensitive so store them properly and eat them asap. Plant herb pots of your favourite seasonings so you pluck only what you need. Buy only what you need for the coming three days.
Leftovers can stimulate your culinary creativity. Make a pesto from carrot tips, a soup from bruised pumpkins and withering greens or risotto with the cooked rice from yesterday’s dinner. Baked chicken can make a pilaf. Any extras make another delicious meal. The recipe author Mark Bittman published a whole series of cookbooks on How to Cook Everything.
Composting is easy if you have a garden behind your house or city composting is made easy. In Monaco, some public parks like Park Princesse Antoinette have composting bins ready for donations. Bring orange peel, pineapple skin, carrot scraps over and the organic patches or the animals together with the visiting pigeons will happily feast on these delicacies.
At grocery stores and supermarkets: Before you buy, check the “best before” labels, but do not take them death seriously since so much produce keeps well for days after this date. Employ common sense. If the dry pasta, lentils or rice in your pantry are two months past their eat by date, cook them asap, but do not throw them out, unless bug colonised the contents. Sniff, and if the aroma does not punch you with disgust, do not bin it. It is still probably edible and perfectly safe to consume. Refrigerated foods at stores alert us on their increased pathogen risks.
With home food delivery on the rise though, we urgently need a more clear guidance since there is not a shop assistant at hand to advise us. ReFED proposed The Date Labeling Standardisation Tool (screenshot bellow) as an alternative to current use by date system in the US. I believe that standardisation should be universal to clarify to the consumers everywhere when the food is safe to eat or cook with. The current mixed rules are misleading.
At hotels: breakfast buffets generate enormous food waste and so do freebees like unwanted deserts baked to indulge you just before going to bed. Tell your hotel what you want and what not. If you like fruit, tell the room service which fruits you like so no other fresh produce rots in your fruit basket. Nibbled on bread and pastries after a table has left can be served in dedicated buckets to birds as Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok does. It is a win-win for the luxurious hotel. The birds do not bother the guests, while enjoying the feast that the human appetite eyed too big.
At restaurants: the food waste is much lower because the chefs were taught to economise and plan well in order to run their business efficiently. Nevertheless, serving too large portion size can increase food waste tremendously, then request a box to go. Soups can be blended from ripe or bruised vegetables. Local farmers surplus vegetables are being used at Grassroots in Hong Kong in their weekly changing Farmers Harvest Soup.
The balancing act: locally and globally united against food waste
The most globally wasted foods are bread, fruit, vegetables, fish and seafood.
Traditionally, a stale bread can be turned into a grilled bruschetta brushed with olive oil and juicy tomatoes, a hardened bread can be turned into breadcrumbs. Hundreds of recipes in the European culture utilised bread crumbs. Another option is to bake another sourdough loaf like my grandmother taught me. Using the leftover chunks of bread during the starter fermentation process quickens it.
Innovative food businesses are finally finding creative ways to make “products from byproducts” as Wholefoods dubs it.
Belgian microbrewery — Brussels Beer Project — makes ‘Babylone’ beer from leftover bread. The grains left after brewing can be recycled to feed livestock as Tristram Stuart, the founder of Toast Ale in the UK that was inspired by the Belgian beer. In an interview he said: “the ancient Babylonians actually invented beer to preserve bread and other grains that otherwise would be wasted.” He also set up an anti-food waste organisation FEEDBACK GLOBAL and his beer is now brewed in New York, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. ReGrained upcycles leftover grains from beer brewing to create a fibre-rich flour SuperGrain+ that is baked into snacks.
Coffee is also one of the most wasted commodities. Brewed coffee grains are a by-product of our caffeinated lifestyles, but instead the millions of tons ending in the landfills, they can be further used to make biofuel, furniture, to fertilise soil and to grow mushrooms. Hugh Blogh warns in his post about Fungusloci, a mushroom farming business based in the UK: “Residual compounds in the spent coffee grounds accumulate in landfill and have been shown to pose a health risk to both humans and aquatic organisms. In addition, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is emitted as the grounds break down.” Human resourcefulness found a savvy rooting in using something that would otherwise be thrown away. “Fungusloci diverts over a tonne of spent coffee grounds from landfill every two months. The mushrooms are then sold back to the local community through stalls and restaurants, or via the local food hub”, he writes, while the founder Dominic Thomas adds: “Every small town should have its own coffee-recycling mushroom-growing unit”. This is an effective, closed food cycle. Green tea leaves can be made into a condiment or salad by adding vinaigrette, sesame seeds, spices or oil.
Wasting seafood should be considered a crime. While our oceans are being radically depleted of limited wild fish stocks, we must cherish every morsel that goes into our mouths. Restaurants like ESCA in New York offer underused seafood like snails, blood clams showing diners how tasty they can be. In traditional communities around Japan everything caught in the ocean is eaten.
We must avoid the food ending in the landfill where it releases so much environmentally damaging methane during the decomposing process that it became one of the worst pollutants on the Planet.
In Netherlands, INSTOCK works with local food producers and supermarket chains to use their surplus, turning it into ready meals. In Japan, the chain of convenience stores Lawson, leftover bento box meals and onigiri rice balls are turned into fertilizer distributed to designated farmers. Animal feed is recycled in Japan from uneaten food by Agri Gaia System Co, biofuel or renewable energy like electricity can be made from leftover food through anaerobic digestion, and composting bins in cities collect and transform food scraps into organic fertiliser. Yoplait yogurt factory in Tennessee has a closed production cycle that saves it millions of dollars annually on energy costs. Forager Project in San Francisco produces superb organic vegetable snacks from the pulp leftovers in their cold pressed juice making. Trendy juicing is highly wasteful. Our bodies need the fibre! PULP PANTRY in LA collects the pulp from juiceries across the city (and there are hundreds whose pulp ends in landfill) and makes it into a grain-free, paleo-friendly granola. As a consumer opt for more wholesome smoothies instead of juice.
Food waste activism
Star chefs, the Milan Expo and media campaigns have alerted on the food waste problem. The Felix Project supported by the Evening Standard in London started a food waste initiative in 2016. Art and design can alert us about food waste or be directly involved with solving the issue locally. In Hong Kong, leftover food (mostly fruit and vegetables) is being used to dye textile and clothes at a workshop inside the PMQ creative compound.
Still, the highest level of awareness and value of the food we produce is seeded in childhood. Edible Schoolyard project in America teaches children how to grow and compost plants. Terre de Monaco likewise engages kids in gardening.
Humans are motivated by costs. In South Korea, the government turned the awareness of household food waste only in a couple of years into a successful recycling scheme that almost eradicated landfill food waste. The digital bins weigh how much of the organic matter, plastic, paper et al. each household throws away and a fee is charged each month. This might be unpopular in many democratic countries, yet though a good information campaign the educated public must agree that this is future.
I touched on restaurant food waste reduction in my sustainable chefs musing. Seed-to-stalk, root-to-frond and nose-to-tail cooking and offal eating became more common thanks to the campaigns lead by Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, culminating in a full documentary produced in 2017 by Anthony Bourdain Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. “Use everything, waste nothing!”, said Bourdain in the introduction. Some celebrity chefs like Dan Barber lead the sustainable food movement by showing us how to use corn husks to grow mushrooms or to pickle mellon skin (try, so delicious!).
The three Michelin stared Massimo Bottura co-created Refettorio, leftovers repurposing eateries welcoming the poor to enjoy great meals transformed by the top chefs’ skills into decadent plates. Now also operating in Paris, New York, London and LA are in the plans. Daniel Humm, Alain Ducasse and others have joined the socially conscious chef in his battle against food waste.
Merlin Labron Johnson, the chef at Michelin stared Portland in London, as much as the LA-based Jeremy Fox shun food waste. The later writes On Vegetables: “Even the smallest scraps can be used as components of a larger dish, throwing away food embarasses me.” From San Francisco, though London to Tokyo, where the stellar yakiniku chef Kentaro Nakahara pioneered locally using the whole cow that he buys directly from the farmers, his sauces are made with the marrow, his beef tongue has been raved about in the foodie press, even the brain is used.
Water waste during the food production and readying it for consumption is also a pressing problem. If you throw away that uneaten burger, cheese, and other highly water consuming edibles, you wasted litres of precious water.
If the food that was grown, watered, picked, raised, slaughtered, transported, refrigerated and prepared to eat, and it does not end up in our mouth, but rots unsorted on the communal dumb – refuse collection, then it was wasted. There is a moral aspect of our disrespect towards the food that fuels us for life. Food waste is an ecologically criminal behaviour.
Healthy diet inspired by reducing food waste
Mass production reduced hunger, yet now the chubby planet is malnourished thanks to the engineered mono-crops filling our cupboards and bellies. Corn, soy, wheat and rice are processed into snacks and foods that contradict any balanced diet concept. Sayed Azam-Ali, CEO of Crops For the Future (CFF), wrote recently for the Financial Times: “not only are there now more obese than underweight people on the planet but, in both cases, their diets are impoverished”. While global population suffers from the health traps of obesity, food waste piles up. The vanities of ‘prosperous’ world are wiping out the history of mankind – when gluttony was seen as a sin or at least ethically unacceptable. The honourable past of the men when daily meals were sanctified and food waste was a taboo.
If we shop and dine with consideration for food waste we can achieve a balanced diet. Fresh foods like herbs, vegetables, fruits, eggs, at al. are nutritionally dense and should be consumed soon after plucking them. Eat them always first. Conversely, most processed foods have a long shelf life, so just keep an eye of them, an annual cleanse of your cupboards will do, and you will eat less of them. I always line up the polenta, rice, the sensitive stone-milled flours, and dried pulses before a long trip so I cook with them in the weeks leading to our departure. Rarely, do I have to throw away anything.
I agree with Anthony Bourdain, traveling can open one’s yeas and teach you respect for food. Seeing how some families struggle to obtain their daily nourishment, the hardships involved in providing food to themselves and their loved ones does not leave an observer cold. In Nepal, India, in many parts of Africa, and impoverished parts of South America I saw the struggles to be fed, therefore it breaks my heart to see food being thrown away, the unfinished plates, the expired contents of the fridge, the half-touched plastic containers polluting our oceans, the soil, our animals and ultimately ourselves with toxic byproducts of food production – methane and the hundreds and thousands of years decomposing plastic materials themselves.
Achieving zero waste by employing technology smartly is within our reach, yet, we must employ a little personal effort. Small steps count, so serve and order smaller portions of food, buy less fresh produce and pantry staples, but more frequently so you utilise them at their highest nutritional density before they wither. Simply, do not buy more than you need and cook it all!