Saturday 27 November 2010

Food by numbers

Amongst Transitioners we talk a lot about what motivates change. We talk about people needing to engage with things on a heart level as well as a head level. And numbers are really not seen as a good motivator. But I read the Transition Handbook and this passage turned my world-view upside down:

“In 2004 the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; we imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream by weight, from France and exported 9.9 million. The figures for the same trade with Germany were 15.5 million kilos and 17.2 million. Germany sent us 1.5 million kilos of potatoes and we sent them, yes, 1.5 million kilos of potatoes.”

As part of being green in outlook and quite sceptical about things, I'd always generally assumed that 'big business' was doing things that were a bit silly and bad for the environment. But I'd never seen it in such black and white, with numbers of that size. Swapping one and a half million kilos of potatoes with Germany in a year? But my brain, like most, doesn't easily understand what big numbers really mean. So lets play with this number. If the average potato is, like this one, 8cm long and weighs 200g... That means there are 5 potatoes in a kg, so 1.5 million kilos is 7,500,000 potatoes. If they're each 8cm long- now I feel like I'm on Blue Peter- and they were all laid end to end, the line of potatoes would be 372.8 miles long. That would reach from Cromer to London and back again. Which would be roughly as pointless as swapping potatoes with Germany.

Once I'd learnt this I suddenly understood what all those people saying “Growth is not necessarily a good thing” were on about. Such trade is 'good for business'. It 'keeps the economy on track'. It's also blindingly stupid.

We hear a lot about food waste too, and I flicked through a recipe book the other day and was transfixed by a page about food waste. The numbers on it were so outlandishly large that I hunted down the report to check it was talking about households in the UK, not including retail and catering. No, it was just household. Then I checked if it meant actual waste- some of these reports include tea leaves as wasted food, which in my opinion they are not. I use them, I can't eat them. When they've been used I compost them. At no stage in this process can I consider them 'wasted food'. But no, this report finely categorised waste as 'unavoidable' (eg. the cores of peppers, pea pods- but I make stock from mine, and it's delicious!), 'possibly avoidable' (eg. carrot skins, potato skins) and 'avoidable' (that's whole, wholly edible things that are just thrown away).

So these numbers are real, about real food and real households. Here we go:

Every DAY we throw away:

7 million slices of bread.

1 million slices of ham.

4.4 million whole apples.

660,000 eggs.

5.1 million whole potatoes.

260,000 unopened packs of cheese.

2.8 million tomatoes.

1.2 million whole sausages.

550,000 rashers of bacon.

330,000 chicken portions.

700,000 unopened packets of chocolate and sweets.

82,000 whole cakes and gateaux.

2,900 unopened bottles and cans of lager.

The report helpfully priced each item: the bacon for instance was 'worth' £50 million a year. I've not included those prices. I think we deserve to carry the costs of those foods, if we're stupid enough to act in this way.

What I find deeply offensive is the idea that pigs died for that bacon to be thrown away. We know that much chocolate production involves the use of bonded child labour: slavery, essentially. And we're throwing away the products that caused so much misery in their production. Some of the eggs and chicken we throw away are likely to have come from battery chickens, imprisoned for their whole life- each chicken with about as much room as a mouse-mat. And after that hell, we're just throwing away their bodies? Then consider the farming itself: people's life-work being thrown away. The decline of skylarks on UK farms, growing wheat ever more intensively to make flour for bread- when we throw away 7 million slices of it every day. The deforestation of rainforests to grow soya to feed cows to make cheese which we just throw in the bin. I can't say how angry this makes me.

I'm guilty too. I throw food away. I think I fancy more of something than I've actually got an appetite for when it's cooked. I buy food which I don't manage to eat because my plans change mid-week. But I do try, very hard, not to waste food. I'm motivated by my heart, not my head, on this one. But now my head has seen those numbers too, and it understands we really do have to change these things.


  1. Brava Elena! A fierce, smart and beautifully written post. You might like to check out that book/website on food Waste by Tristram Stuart if you don't know it already. Stats to make you weep.
    All the snowy best,

  2. The Norfolk waste conference ( quoted a figure of 5.3m tonnes/yr of AVOIDABLE food waste (cooked too much, not used in time etc). I work this out to be about 85kg/yr per person - but I don't know anyone who wastes anything like this amount of food. There must be some very wasteful people somewhere!

  3. What an amazing post Elena, very thought provoking. Like John I just dont understand how people can waste this much food, do they just go shopping and then put it in the bin? It is deeply offensive really and degrades the massive impact and effort of farming.