Dumpster diver digs deeper

September 23, 2009

Waste: uncovering the global food scandalBy Tristram StuartPenguin, 2009496 pages, $25 (pb)

When I arrived in Australia as a new immigrant in August 2008, I had no job and little money. I'd read about freegans — people who live on thrown-away food — so decided to try my luck.

For three nights, I searched Sydney's wheelie bins and found little except 50 cupcakes — about $150 worth — in a clean binliner outside the Cup Cake Factory in Ponsonby. But on the fourth night, I ventured around the back of a Coles supermarket and found a whole skip piled high with perfectly edible food.

For the next five months I lived on nothing but rubbish. To my surprise and wonderment, I found I was eating better than I had when I'd paid for food.

There would always be an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables and bread. I would break this monotonously healthy diet with trips to petrol station skips, which would invariably be full of Coca-Cola and junk food.

Beyond being appalled at the terrible waste, I thought little more of it.

But Tristram Stuart is one dumpster diver who has dug far, far deeper in Waste. In the south of England as a teenager, Stuart started raiding skips to feed the pigs on his family farm.

Then, one day, he tried eating some of the food himself.

"As my pigs munched through their breakfast, I tore open the rich loaf and ate mouthfuls of tomato flavoured dough ... The bread was salty and soft, still fresh enough to eat and enjoy."

It fuelled his insatiable hunger to find out more.

Supermarkets, explains Stuart, throw out so much food because they feel they must have customers' favourite products always available for fear of losing custom.

They will always overstock because they believe customers like to see full shelves. If a sandwich costs $1 but sells for $3, it's still profitable to stock two and throw away one, rather than stock just one and risk losing a sale.

But it's doubtful all that food needs to be discarded.

Christopher Haskins, a baron from Britain's House of Lords, tells Stuart about his involvement in the invention of sell-by dates in Europe, after a London Evening Standard story about Harrods cream being rancid.

"The public are very stupid to take these dates so seriously", says Haskins.

Australia follows Europe's example in using sell-by dates, but the US does not, partly because it sees how much unnecessary waste they can cause. However, Stuart reveals the food thrown out by supermarkets is the just the tip of the waste iceberg.

Because of supermarkets' bullying relationship with their suppliers, tonnes of food are thrown away before they even reach supermarket shelves.

For example, if it has been raining for a few days and people stop buying sandwiches, supermarkets will cancel their sandwich orders, and the supplier must destroy the order. Farmers, likewise, are made to destroy whole crops of carrots that aren't straight enough, tomatoes that aren't red enough, and so on.

But Stuart points out that when Britain's potato crop failed in 2007, the supermarkets were forced to sell knobbly, natural-looking potatoes instead — and received no customer complaints. Supermarkets' strict standards, he says, are a ruse.

If demand for tomatoes drops off for no discernible reason, they pass the cost of the lost sales onto the farmer by rejecting their produce on false grounds. This is a terrible waste of resources, since growing food uses much land, energy and far more water than we use in the home.

But supermarkets are not the biggest sole culprits in wasting food.

Britain's Waste and Resources Action Programme found the British throw away about a quarter of what they buy, or 6.7 million tonnes of food a year. Studies suggest Australians householders discard about $A7.8 billion of food a year, or 13.1% of their food purchases.

A survey conducted in Australia in 2005 found that 60% of people felt guilty about buying and then wasting items such as food. "But rather than feeling guilty, we should feel empowered by the sense of responsibility", says Stuart.

If Western countries stopped diverting millions of tonnes of cereals into their rubbish bins, he says, there would be more available on the world market and cereals would be more affordable. This action alone would be enough to alleviate the hunger of 1.5 billion people — more than all the malnourished people in the world.

But that's just grains — if all waste was saved, there would be "enough food to satisfy the needs of all the world's hungry between three and seven times over". That's more than enough food for thought.

There's also the environmental cost. "If we planted trees on the land currently used to grow unnecessary surplus and wasted food", says Stuart, "we could theoretically offset a maximum of 50-100 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions".

This is the beauty of Stuart's book. It has a despairing statistic on every page and is the kind of tome you will find yourself reading aloud to anyone who will listen.

But where others would see only squandering, Stuart sees salvation.

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