follow me on twitter

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

food, and the end of the world.

Food is our most precious commodity. Sure- without petrol, we'd all have to do a bit more walking, and without crude oil we wouldn't have such fun waging war left right and centre. But without food (and water, of course), well- we just wouldn't get very much done at all. So given our overwhelming, unequivocal reliance on the stuff, it's tricky to understand why we chuck over one-third of all food produced globally in the bin. That's 1.3 billion tonnes, worth approximately US$ 1,000,000,000,000- one trillion dollars- and it looks like this:

The tiny little thing on the left is, one presumes, an average-sized man in a fetching red jumper.

5th June 2013 was World Environment Day, which this year chose to focus on the new UNEP and FAO campaign Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint. That this post comes a bit late is seemingly appropriate- hell, I might even pretend it was deliberate.  Because the point is, reducing our food waste isn't something we should only be thinking about for one day a year: it should be ingrained in our very being. Not only is it careless, it's stupid. And if you're a miserly, penny-pinching kind of person (aren't we all these days?), then it's downright senseless- you're throwing your hard-earned money into the bin. Given the technology we have at our disposal (fridges, freezers, vacuum seals...), and the fact that we still seem to be in the midst of a rather stubborn recession, it all seems rather silly, doesn't it? Hence why the UNEP are hell-bent on highlighting the moral implications of food waste (from before a crop is even a seedling, and a calf is but a glint in its mother's eye, right through to its seemingly inevitable future in a landfill site somewhere...), in a world where 900 million people go hungry every day. Put into it's bluntest terms, we simply cannot continue to produce and consume food the way we do today for much longer.
Bad distribution...?

But why ever not? Whilst it may be true that our reserves are rather low (so if every grain farmer in the world were to suddenly down tools to pursue dreams of a music career/opening a B&B/joining a monastery, we'd be left with just enough globally to survive for a month and a half), there IS, as it stands, more than enough food for everybody. Distribution has always been a problem- it's a well parroted fact that 80% of the world's food is indeed consumed by a mere 20%. But if you look towards the (alarmingly not-so-distant) future, between the fisheries sector and common agricultural practices in food production, it's all going rather wrong.

I can think of no appropriate caption for this, besides: great shirt.
In 2008, you might have picked up on something called the global food crisis. I say this without a hint of sarcasm, because unless you're a fairly avid reader of newspapers, it could easily have passed you by. Unless of course you lived in Haiti, or Burkina Faso, or Mozambique, where food prices increased by up to 100%, alongside those in dozens of other developing countries. According to the veritable institution of the World Bank, food prices rose globally by 83% between 2005-2008. For some staple crops, such as wheat, this figure was as high as 130%.

Whilst it had immediate causes (such as drought in 2005 and 2006, high oil prices, and an increase in meat consumption per capita), many saw the crisis as an indication of just how fragile our food production systems are, and how easily it can all descend into anarchy. Whilst we've already established that globally, there is enough to feed us, it's clear that our production systems need to change to prevent such crises from re-occurring.

So, if the case isn't that there are just too many damn people in the world for the food resources we have available, then why is everyone harping on about food waste so much? Hasn't technology allowed us to increase crop yields globally? In some ways, it certainly sounds as though we'll be AOK to carry on stuffing our faces, air-freighting our food, and throwing it away when it bores us. But the fact of the matter is that modern agricultural production has, quite simply, screwed up our planet a treat.

The BBC: A less veritable institution, perhaps, but still
largely reliable.
I'm no real eco-warrior- at least in the traditional sense. I wash my clothes, brush my hair (sometimes), get driven around in a car, and take as many plane trips a year as I can afford. But as I've said before, I pick my battles- food just happens to be the one I care about most. So the idea of future generations struggling to feed themselves because we've pushed our global food systems to breaking point seems, frankly, unpalatable. There is nothing sustainable about the field- (or sea) to-fork practices we have in place, and before long it all looks set to go very, very wrongWithin what I would hope to be my lifetime (though given my gin consumption, perhaps not...), the world's population levels are set to hit 9.1 billion- perhaps as early as 2050. Working on our current numbers, we'd need to increase food production by about 50%. But owing to a combination of climate change (caused in no small part by our own evil doings), water scarcity, and additional damage to the environment, this looks set to fall by about 25% anyway. So in real terms, we'll actually need to increase our food production levels by 75% within forty years, just to provide enough food to stop the human race from going extinct. As much as it all sounds like the plot to Will Smith's next disaster movie (do 'shotgun' rules apply to screenplay rights...?), it's the reality we face.

Let's go back to a happier, marginally more abundant time. Biology lessons, age twelve or thereabouts. If you weren't too busy setting fire to rubbers with Bunsen burners or flicking ink at your teacher's lab coat, you might recall some of the key principles of our fragile ecological system. In short, all aspects of the food chain and surrounding environment (soil, water, climate and insects) need supporting. If one takes a hit, they all go tits up. And had my teacher put it the same way, I might have paid more attention. The rare species of tree that feeds the insect, that feeds the bird that helps cross-pollinate the crop that feeds the cow gets ploughed down to make room for a nice rice paddy. Yes- there would be more rice, but in the mean time everything around it is being gradually wiped out. And if my laymans explanation of complex ecological systems was lacking in any real detail, it's probably because I have a history degree, not a biology one- sorry. I'm sure that's about right, though. It's worth bearing in mind that this is all concerning what happens on land; terrifyingly, global fish stocks have reduced by a whopping 75% due to uncontrolled overfishing, and the destruction of marine habitat. Something to think about next time you fancy a tuna sandwich.

A lemming. You'll notice he's not actually jumping
off a cliff, because they don't do that. Apparently
that's just the game.

So that's it- we're buggered. We may as well have one last slap-up dinner of foie gras and sushi, before throwing half of it in the bin and jumping off the cliff like lemmings. Because what the hell else can we do? Good question. Short of going tuna-hugging, or chaining yourself to the nearest paddy-adjacent tree, it's hard to imagine anything making much of an impact. But luckily there are hundreds of things you can do, and most of them are more about adopting a change in ethos than they are about doing anything dramatic or exhausting. There are enough irritating trends out there that seem to have no trouble catching on, so let's make this the next one- let's make  being frugal, imaginative or cunning with food the next Harlem Shake.

Eight things you can do to feel smug:

1. Don't ignore the contents of your fridge. It's all well and good deciding you fancy sausages for dinner- that's fine. Buy sausages. But take stock of what's on its last legs at the back of the fridge, too. That way, you can try to incorporate that stuff in as well.  You don't have to be desperate about things: it's unlikely that the entire contents of your fridge will come together in Blumenthal-like grace and gastronomic harmony, but the chances are you'll be able to use something. Try challenging yourself- see how little you can get away with buying to get yourself a good meal. Again, I'm by no means suggesting you live off a reheated mix of Sunday's roast potatoes, Tuesday's salmon and some questionable yoghurt, because this isn't a punishment- just a thought-provoking challenge.

2. Don't shop on an empty stomach. It's silly, and expensive.

3. Pre-empt your leftovers. That way, you're probably less likely to throw them in the bin, or force them unpleasantly down your throat in a 'waste not, want not' kind of way. It also means you can buy what you need to eke them out for their mid-week reincarnation at the same time. For instance...

* If you're buying cream, get some fruit. Cobble together some panna cottas. (Future blog plug, because I happen to have two pints of cream languishing in the corner of my own fridge. Short of drinking the stuff, I could think of nothing better to do than make half a dozen panna cottas and photograph them endlessly for next week's post. Bet you can't wait, eh?)

* If you're making risotto ((old blog post plug #1), get some mozarella and try to save a little bread for breadcrumbs. Make arancini.

* Got meat? Save a potato. Make a patty. (old blog post plug #2)

I could go on, but I'm not here to provide you with an exhaustive compendium of leftover ideas- use your own head, and your own tastebuds. And, as always- a decent store cupboard (old blog post plug #3) will make things immeasurably easier.

4. IGNORE BEST BEFORE DATES because they're bollocks. Judging your food should be instinctive, not dictated to you by some off-the-cuff, back-covering, law-suit-avoiding 'BBE' casually stamped across a piece of cellophane. The 'Best Before' is no reflectionof how safe the food is, just a prediction by the supermarkets of when the goods, might, maybe, start declining in quality. In short, they scaremonger consumers into mistrusting their own judgement, throwing it away, and hopping off down to Tesco for its replacement. So here's a handy guide to determine the freshness and quality of your own food: if it has fur, is practically moving and smells like the inside of a post-Glastonbury tent, then you can bin it. Otherwise, it's probably OK.

5. Store things properly. Keep meat cold until a couple of hours before you cook it (allowing it to come to room temperature does help it cook more evenly though...), keep your veg and salads cool (NOT arctic), and keep your bread covered. Learn to use your freezer (though admittedly, this is a tad hypocritical of me: I own a beautiful but impractical fridge with an ice box just large enough for frozen stock and a bottle of vodka. Or it would be, had I not broken the door off and allowed the whole thing to freeze over entirely).  

6.  Master the art of jam, soup and chutney-making. For these are the holy trinity of imaginative leftovers, and no one knows (or cares) how ropey a strawberry/courgette/onion looked before it ws given a new lease of life in one of the above.

7. Eat local produce. Yes, I've whinged about it before, and I'll whinge about it again because I'm an ardent supporter of eating the stuff that grows here. It will help reduce your carbon footprint, it'll be seasonal, and it will be cheaper, owing to the lack of plane, train and automobile faffing involved in getting it here (unlike its Mexican/Peruvian/Kenyan alternative). Plus it will support your local economy. Try Pick Your Own (old blog post plug #4), and go for some of the gnarly stuff; we're far too shallow when it comes to our food. You can feel smug about restoring social justice to the asparagus world if you pick the 'special' looking one, and it'll taste just as good.

8. Sign a petition every once in a while. Preferably not one generated by the EDL, but something about bumblebees. Or palm oil. Or trout farming- anything that stirs your heart a little. It can't hurt.

There you go: eight easy steps to saving the world. Will Smith makes it look so damn hard...

And now, to really drive the point home, watch this:

I really must say thank you to Nick Nuttall, director of the UN Environment Programme, and an all-round helpful man. So, thank you Nick.

happy fridge-raiding,

mrs hunt.x