Consumers as well as supermarkets play a crucial role in influencing retail and farming policy and must help drive change.
Last Friday Sainsbury’s ran another switch the fish day. Customers who asked for one of the so-called “big five” – cod, haddock, tuna, salmon or prawns – were offered a free alternative fish: lemon sole, coley, local trout, mussels or Cornish sardines.
An estimable initiative such as this, which helps educate consumers to make more sustainable choices, needs to be remembered in the debate about our shocking amount of food wastage – a debate in which supermarkets are often singled out for particular criticism.
I don’t deny that some supermarket practices can directly or indirectly lead to waste: contractual requirements on farmers, for instance, can prompt farmers to produce a surplus rather than risk breaking their contract.
But it is worth emphasising that this is not a straightforward tale of greedy supermarket behemoths exploiting innocent consumers. There is clearly a circle here: supermarkets can help create desires (some of which may be inaccurately perceived as needs), but supermarkets also respond to consumers’ desires and demands. The circle is also vicious – if we wish to turn it into a virtuous one, consumers also need to take a hard look at their own individual responsibilities.
As consumers, we need to understand that a nutritious and delicious vegetable or piece of fruit may not conform to some, often spurious, ideals of aesthetic perfection, and be prepared to buy and eat those examples which do not conform. Similarly, if we eat fish or meat, we need to overcome our reluctance to buy certain cuts and types and learn how to cook them. We need to become more aware of which processing techniques result in the most wastage and buy such foods more sparingly.
Perhaps above all, we need to wean ourselves off our complacent expectation – an expectation not shared by our grandparents or even our parents – that all types of fruit and vegetable, and indeed meat and fish, should be available to us all year round. Quite apart from the environmental costs of long distance transportation, such lengthy journeys increase the risk of delays (for example, port strikes and storms) and food going to waste.
There are complex practical and ethical issues here. Long journeys do not always result in wastage and that risk is not the only ethical concern at stake; farmers around the world need to be able to find markets. I’m not arguing for a rigidly seasonal approach, but simply a more seasonal one.
Furthermore, if we regain a more flexible and seasonal approach to what we buy and eat, then this might allow supermarkets and food producers to negotiate more flexible contracts, so that the producers will feel less pressured into producing a surplus.
We also need to be aware of how much wastage is caused by fear of consumer litigation. Of course food retailers and suppliers must always be held responsible for selling food that is unfit to eat – or inaccurately labelled – but consumers also need to take some responsibility for what they put in their mouths; sometimes toxic food is not detectable by eye or nose, but often it is. Again, this requires some basic knowledge, and it is not clear that children are always being taught such life-preserving skills.
Many of us also find it easier to waste food because of our distance from food production and wasted food may also often pile up out of sight. The rotting horrors that I sometimes discover to my shame at the bottom of my fridge are rarely, if ever, the vegetables that I have grown myself – too much time and effort has gone into their production for me to allow them to go to waste.
People obviously cannot be blamed for not having the time or land to grow food or make their own compost, but we do have a moral responsibility to try to imagine the realities of food production and wastage. And anything which can be done to enable children to grow something – a tomato plant, some herbs, anything at all, whether at home or at school – will help foster this understanding (and children are much more inclined to eat vegetables they have grown themselves). We need to teach them how to cook from leftovers, how to make, for example, a vegetable, fish or meat stock. In our busy adult lives we do not always have the time to utilise these skills – though the actual preparation time in making a stock is minimal – but they are skills that we all need to have.
We tend to blame lack of time for much food wastage, but lack of knowledge is also a huge factor.
The causes of food wastage are many and complex – food obviously goes to waste at the level of production as well as during the transportation, storage, processing, retail and consumption stages – and it will take a multi-pronged approach to tackle them.
But there is no ambiguity about the basic fact that for so much food to go to waste when so many people are hungry, malnourished and starving is morally unacceptable. Individual consumer choices cannot eradicate the problems, but they can help in a profound way to influence retail and farming policy and practice, and it is in the power of all of us to make them.
Guardian, 4 February 2013