by Barry Colam

The World's population, currently 6.8 billion, is predicted to grow to over 9 billion by the middle of this century. Even now some 1 billion suffer from lack of adequate food so how will we be able to provide for so many more people without destroying more rain forests and increasing the use of pesticides and fertilisers?

The sad fact is that around one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted between production and consumption: some 1.3 billion tons of it. In developing countries 40% of this occurs at the post-harvest and production stage: food deteriorates faster in hot and humid conditions; poor transport infrastructure means the food spoils before it gets to market. In developed countries on the other hand, 40% is at the retailer and consumer stage. The latter is equivalent to the total food production is Sub-Saharan Africa. On average, a consumer in a developed country like ours wastes 100 kg (220 lb) of perfectly good food per year.

So what is the cause of all this waste in the UK and what can be done about it?

Confusion around food labelling, for example the differences between “sell-by”, “display until”, “consume by” and “best before” dates, results in perfectly good food being thrown away. While there are safety aspects involved in some cases, in general if the food looks and smells OK then it usually is! In other words, use your common sense. Many supermarkets now donate some of those items past their sell-by dates to charities &c. which use it to feed poor or homeless people – it is clearly still fit for human consumption!

Retailers, supermarkets in particular, think that consumers will only buy perfect, blemish-free produce, all the apples, tomatoes &c. the same size, shape and colour. The producers (farmers) therefore have to discard significant proportions of their crops because they don't reach these standards. But does it really matter whether an apple has a blemish on its skin or a tomato is slightly misshapen? Surely the main thing that really matters is what it taste like. I note that this year, because poor weather in the Spring and Summer resulted in smaller harvests, some supermarkets are having to offer for sale fresh produce that is not up to their usual cosmetic standards!

But what can we as individuals do to cut down our food waste, particularly now that finance is rather tight? The priority is to buy only the food that you actually need. So first check the fridge, freezer and cupboards to see what is left and don't go shopping without a list of what you know you're going to use. Plan meals in advance, including what to use “leftovers” for: much of the wasted food is of spontaneous purchases and “buy one get one free” isn't the “special offer” it seems if it isn't all used.

Food prices have declined over many years, certainly as a proportion of income, but those days may now be over. With global harvests reduced, the price of food, and meat in particular, will inevitably rise, so doesn't it make sense to stop wasting one-third of our food budget?

January 2013