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Friday, January 11, 2013

Food waste points to need for re-engineered attitudes and values

Up to half of world's food goes to waste report says
By Rick Westhead, Toronto Star, January 10, 2013
The companies that produced the world’s supply of loose-leaf tea had a problem: nearly one-quarter of their product was being thrown out.
Customers, who preferred whole tea leaves to make the perfect cuppa, had no use for the dust or the small bits of leaves known as fannings that came with their purchase.
So engineers came up with a solution: tea bags, which contained the fannings, dust and residue.
That’s the kind of ingenuity the world needs today, according to a new report on food wastage that concludes roughly half of the four billion tonnes of food produced in the world each year ends up as waste.
The U.K.-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that everyone from farmers to supermarket chains to finicky consumers is to blame for all the waste.
“We wanted to recognize this as a problem both in the developed and the developing world and point out that maybe engineers can help reduce the waste, perhaps with better storage and crop-production systems,” said Colin Brown, the organization’s director of engineering.
In Canada and other developed countries, roughly one-third of vegetable crops are rejected because they don’t look appealing enough for supermarket chains, the engineering group said, and nearly half of the food purchased is ultimately tossed in the garbage.
In developing countries in South Asia and Africa, acute food-related problems can be seen in the fields and in the markets.
In India, for instance, as much as 40 per cent of all the fruits, vegetables and food grains never make it to the market. The country wastes more grain each year than Australia produces, and more fruits and vegetables than the U.K. consumes.
“Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions,” the report said.
The main food terminal in New Delhi, for example, is a bustle of activity. On any given day, transport trucks with produce arrive from southern India following a 2,500-kilometre trip. With temperatures approaching 50 C, many of the pineapples, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables tucked into piles of straw in the backs of trucks are tossed aside.
While a better refrigerated transport service would help reduce that spoilage, few companies are willing to invest because of India’s unreliable power supply.
“There’s no question improving things will take capital investment,” Brown said.
Corruption also plays a role. In the Indian village of Fazilka, a small community in western Punjab, three-metre-tall mounds of harvested grain sat in a government holding facility last year. The grain had been left rotting outside on pine palettes, uncovered for at least several years.
A local journalist told the Star during a tour of the facility that an elected official owns a nearby brewery and makes bootleg liquor. Once the grain starts rotting and fermenting, he takes it for free, said Kapil Trikha, a reporter with Day and Night, a Punjabi cable news channel.
While engineers can and will make recommendations for improvements in the various parts of the food chain system, many of their recommendations will pale in comparison to the cultural demand for the appearance of perfection in our purchase, storage and consumption of foods. How to overcome our "idealism" and our extremely high self-protective walls of "selectivity" based on little more than a gut sense that we "deserve" and "expect" and "demand" only the "perfect" carrot, or tomato, apple or banana?
That could take either or both a tragic drought and resulting food shortages and real hunger, and/or a re-education program about how to be healthy and effective and reasonable consumers.
While there are some signs of a potentially dramatic shift in food prices and availability, the re-education program, (e.g. McDonald's accepting smaller and medium sized potatoes, as Westhead points out later in his piece above) will likely nibble at the edges of the problem of waste.
More frequent trips to the supermarket, to purchase smaller quantities could be one way to reduce waste, providing each of us with "fresh" awareness of what's in the refrigerator.
Westhead's piece indicates that smaller fridges mean less waste...but that change is unlikely.
Smaller portions, purchasing less, packaging less and better storage containers inside the fridges would all help.
Tolerance of some imperfections including less or no fertilizers would help, as the Westhead piece documents.
However, there is a large gap between the standards of those who are truly hungry and those whose lives are not concerned about the manner of making choices in private in the supermarket, given both their ability to purchase what they want and the supplier's willingness and ability to provide only the "perfect" harvest.
There is a larger implication in this story. If we treat the food we purchase, prepare and then throw away this way, how are we likely to treat a more abstract and less tangible entity like the "planet" or the "environment" or "the oceans" and "the lakes and rivers" of the planet? There is an implicit detachment and an arrogance about our presumptions; there is a disdain for the implications of our carelessness; and there are implications for everyone given the reality that astronaut Chris Hadfield reminded us about, in his news conference from space yesterday, "We really are all in this together!"
And yet preaching and moralizing and accusing and pointing fingers and threatening some kind of apocalyptic form of starvation and food shortages....all of them individually and  together are unlikely to bring about the changes needed.
It is a new consciousness about our personal fragility, vulnerability, and the perspective of humility and empathy and sharing and compassion that will help on this file, and on so many others.
To champion "winners" and "losers" with the attendant attitudes and motivations and exclusions of each by the other is and will continue  to be counter-intuitive to the resolution of so many of our impending resolutions.
We will have to "re-engineer" both the demythologizing of some pillars of our expectations and the building of new and more realistic footings for a different kind of civilization that  really does bring us face to face with the needs and aspirations of all of our fellow earth-dwellers. And that effort will take the concerted effort and imagination of all our skills, and more importantly all our ever-receding reservoir of patience and tolerance and empathy and compassion and creative acceptance of respect for all.

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