The Food Paradox and our collective role in it...

| 5th April 2017
There's nothing 'convenient' about growing your own food but the benefits, including more nutritious food, a sense of well being and achievement, far outweigh the challenges
How can we bridge the gap between ‘fast food' living and responsible consumption when mass production and a throw-away mindset still dominate the lifestyles of most people? LAURA BRIGGS has some thoughts...
UK councils have been creating new allotment sites and many have halved plot sizes, which has enabled them to reduce waiting lists

Producing healthy, sustainable food is a fashionable concept right now, with more consumers looking to become responsible for their own carbon footprint. Small-scale farmers, producers and allotment keepers are all trying to push forward a change in the way we think and eat. This aspiration however remains heavily at odds with the reality, born out of our collective desire for convenience.

The amount of food we waste is a global catastrophe. In cost alone food wastage adds up to around USD 1 trillion every year - not taking into account the human cost of some 795 million people who go hungry on any one given day.

And when it comes to issues of waste, it's not just the food itself, but what it's packaged in. When we throw away a half-eaten sandwich, it's likely that the box or wrapper that encases it will end up in the bin as well - an environmental disaster.

Take this example - a wax paper wrapper on a burger from fast-food giant McDonald's cannot be recycled. It can be composted, but it's unlikely that the many people consuming these burgers would ever know that - less likely still that they would put the wrapper in a composting bin.Packaging from this one global chain alone makes up 50% of their total waste, with food waste making up 20%.

The energy it takes to produce the packaging and the product; the water used, transportation and the gases from rotting waste food, all have a detrimental impact on the environment. McDonald's does now follow a number of sustainable sourcing policies and according to a spokesperson "works closely with suppliers to develop standards based on continuous improvements", but as much as a powerful multi-billion-dollar company does to stay sustainable, it is the consumer mindset that needs to change to bring about both sustainable and regenerative systems of food production.

At present another fast-food outlet, hamburger chain Burger King, is facing criticism for buying soya bean animal feed produced by destructive methods. Grown in the tropical rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, thousands of hectares of these forests have been burned out to produce animal feed.

It's easy to blame the big players, but these actions are borne from our excessive shopping and eating habits.

Destroying natural habitats to grow food for animals, which are then killed for food, makes no sense. But what is the answer to this paradoxical problem? We want choice, we want food in minutes, and we want lots of it. Perhaps we should be looking harder at how much we really need?

Growing food that we can eat directly, rather than producing crops to feed animals, or producing livestock on a smaller scale would go some way to limiting our environmental impact.

Small-scale producers offering food security and using regenerative methods are key to providing food for communities without destroying the environment. 

And it's fair to say many consumers are already trying to do their bit, despite the challenges. There are currently over two million allotment holders across Europe who share an ethos that organic, home-grown produce is best for health and best for the environment - limiting food and energy wastage.

UK councils have been creating new allotment sites and many have halved plot sizes, which has enabled them to reduce waiting lists

Bizarrely, most of us don't think we are wasteful. According to the UK charity WRAP, 60% of householders don't believe they waste food. (The truth, however, is we waste around two-and-a-half main meals each week, the equivalent of  around £9 in monetary value.)

The reasons for this waste are manifold. Buying packets of fruit and veg rather than individual pieces, throwing food out early because we rely so stringently on "use-by dates" and buying from unsustainable sources or unethical producers are all factors that contribute to this enormous level of waste.

A huge bonus to small-scale food production is the benefit to human health. Without the need for pesticides, naturally reared food contains higher nutrient levels thanks to biodiverse soils, without the worry of chemicals passing into our bodies. Lush, natural pastures produce healthy animals which then converts into healthier meat.

By mass-producing food globally, we have been backed into a corner of pesticide use, which contributes further to the decimation of land. Pesticides not only destroy pests but end up killing off harmless insects and pollinators, depleting soils until eventually the ground becomes useless for growing.

A recent report by the United Nations condemned the use of pesticides as ‘going against our basic human rights.' Big corporations pushing for chemical use claim that pesticides are needed to produce enough crops to "feed the world" but actually individuals shouldn't have to feed the world. Focusing on feeding our own families and communities should be the priority.

According to figures from the FAO, global food production needs to increase 60% by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population. Here's what I think, rather than growing on a bigger scale, more people should be growing and eating on a smaller scale.

In America, the community garden (equivalent to the UK's community allotment) addresses a food security issue. Tens of millions of Americans receive assistance from more than 33,500 food pantries across the country - relying on a network of more than 200 regional food banks. This does not include perishable, healthy options such as fresh fruit and vegetables. However, a local solution is found through community gardeners who can provide these vital foods to those who otherwise could not access them. Rather than throwing their excess vegetables, fruits or herbs on the compost, community gardeners share them with a local pantry to be received by hungry families.

In the UK, the number of allotment-keepers is growing, allowing the growers to provide food for their families and removing the need to buy intensively grown supermarket produce. Diane Appleyard of the UK-based National Allotment Society says growing your own food is the antithesis of convenience, but that the benefits outweigh the negatives: "Growing your own food on an allotment is not convenient - it's time consuming, sometimes frustrating and disappointing but at the same time it's life affirming and addictive.

"Having a plot is about much more than growing food and some allotment growers say that the food is not the main reason they have a plot. I know would still do it even if I failed to get a harvest every year."

Encouragingly the humble allotment is in high demand in the UK with a 40-year waiting list in some parts of London, and  four-year waiting list in Bristol. Councils have been creating new sites and many have halved plot sizes, which has enabled them to reduce waiting lists. Some sites have community composting facilities, and often a glut of produce is shared among others.

It's unrealistic to think that everyone will ‘grow their own', but an awareness of how food is produced and how much we waste is crucial to bring about change.

Many global chains are making small changes. The McDonald's 2016 Beef Carbon Report stated that between 2008 and 2014 the fast-food company had reduced its carbon footprint by 23% on the core farms that were monitored. It is also currently undergoing a refurbishment programme to allow customers to order through digital kiosks before paying so food orders are prepared individually and food waste is further reduced.

There are now more vegans than ever, showing that people are thinking more about what they eat, how much they eat, and how it's produced. With more people than ever wanting to wage war on food waste, the big companies are responding. If you want to reduce food waste, use your head - and think before you eat.

This Author

Laura Briggs is the UK news reporter for the Ecologist

Follow her on Twitter @WordsbyBriggs


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