Half of the world's food is thrown away? Come on, supermarkets: give us ‘imperfection’

Special offers that go mouldy in the fridge are partly why people throw so much food away

Share

Every Sunday morning, in a working-class suburb of Granada, there is a crowded, sprawling market.

Unlike the city centre, which is decidedly posh, it bustles with immigrants from North Africa and local farmers with strong Andalucian accents. They sell misshapen vegetables, twisted red and green peppers which taste wonderful roasted with olive oil and garlic, and tomatoes so juicy they’re almost splitting open.

None of it costs very much, and shoppers leave the market with carriers bulging with the kind of produce you’ll never see on the shelves of a British supermarket. These vegetables are grown locally, for taste rather than appearance, and bought by people who may be poor but know how to cook. It’s very different from the way we shop and eat in the UK, and goes a long way towards explaining the shocking statistics in a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. According to the report, up to half the food produced in the world each year – two billion tonnes – ends up being thrown away.

That’s indefensible when so many people go hungry in the developing world. Over-supply isn’t even good for those of us who live in affluent countries, distorting our ideas about food and creating alarming levels of obesity. The report cites poor transport and storage infrastructure as one cause of the problem, but it’s impossible to ignore the role of the big supermarkets, which have encouraged people to be fussy eaters. Here’s another statistic from the same report: up to 30 per cent of vegetable crops in the UK are not harvested because their physical appearance doesn’t meet the expectations of consumers.

Supermarkets demand “cosmetically perfect foodstuffs”, says Dr Tim Fox, the head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The result is a disordered relationship with food which has disastrous effects on our health, cooking habits and farming. What we have in this country isn’t so much choice as the illusion of it: I know supermarkets are convenient, which is why I use them, but what’s actually on their shelves? Look at the average vegetable counter, where everything is bright and shiny and symmetrical, quite unlike the vegetables in a French or Spanish market. How come every single blueberry is the same size, with next to no taste?

I’m sure Independent readers know that not all tomatoes are red, any more than not all beetroot is purple or carrots orange, but you won’t find many alternatives on the high street. Black tomatoes are fantastic in salads. Golden beetroots are delicious roasted, and purple carrots are healthier than the orange sort; we’d be eating them as a matter of course if British supermarkets hadn’t conditioned us to believe that each vegetable comes in only one colour.

The result is a massive waste of land, water and energy resources as farmers find they can’t sell even slightly “imperfect” crops. That’s one end of the food chain; at the other, supermarkets encourage over-consumption with special offers that end up going mouldy in the fridge. Three-for-the-price-of-two offers are hard to resist but I do my best, knowing perfectly well that I won’t want to eat the same thing three days in a row; I’m sure they’re one of the reasons why half the food bought in Europe and the US is thrown away after it’s bought.

This kind of over-consumption emphasises the growing gap between the food-rich, who can afford to chuck unused food away, and the food-poor. The UK now has so many hungry people that food banks are springing up in towns and cities, providing emergency supplies to adults and children who don’t have enough to live on, let alone too much.

At the same time, millions of people have got into the habit of buying snacks and ready-made meals to stick in the oven. Excess weight is causing debilitating diseases and shortening life expectancy, so it isn’t as if all this so-called “choice” is producing healthy outcomes for the rest of us. On the contrary, convenience food has disrupted the process of buying, cooking and eating, changing our perceptions of food in the most damaging way. Eating has become another means of instant gratification, a way of changing mood, something to be got out of the way with the minimum time and effort.

I don’t want to romanticise the lifestyle of European peasants two or three centuries ago, before the industrial revolution. But there’s something ethically wrong about regarding food as so easily disposable, and it certainly suggests we’ve lost a sense of its value. There are very good reasons to think about what we eat, and one way of doing that is to restore the link between shopping, eating and cooking. I know people say they don’t have time, but I can’t help thinking about all those statistics showing how many hours the average person spends watching television.

For many people who live in towns and cities, cooking has become a chore. Supermarkets offer an easy solution but it isn’t really a solution at all, evidenced by the astonishing quantity of food we throw away. There are many things I like about the modern world, but this casual contempt for an inescapable relationship – food, cooking, health – isn’t one of them.

www.politicalblonde.com Twitter: @polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee