What a Waste

An apple a day gets thrown away. In fact, 4.4 million apples get thrown away in the UK every day, the majority of which are still perfectly edible. This is according to information released this week by the UK government funded Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

Having checked through a few dustbins, WRAP has discovered that the British like chucking away food. 6.7 million tonnes of it a year, to be exact. Almost a third of all food bought, 40% of which is fruit and vegetables.

Isn't that amazing? I can hardly bear type this: we stick plants in the ground, use up precious resources of soil and water, bung on all kinds of agrochemical compounds to encourage growth, stick it in packets, ship it to our countries, drive them to the supermarkets where I go in my car every week to buy them... only to throw a third of it away. We're in the midst of a food crisis, Haitians and Africans are rioting over basic staple foods and at the same time we're putting a third of the edible food we buy in the dustbin? Excuse me?

Between the farm gate and my plate, half of the food produced is wasted. Enough from the UK alone to meet half the import needs of the entire African continent. A while back Japan gave a big food donation to Africa including $3 million of food to Burundi. We throw away 40 times more than that in a year. According to the University of Michigan (PDF), it takes 7 times more energy to get food to the average American stomach than it gives you. How much fossil fuels does it cost to get all the other stuff we're used to eating?

To quote someone else:

The latter is all the energy consumed in producing, processing, packaging and distributing that product. The energy ratio (energy out/energy in) in agriculture has decreased from being close to 100 for traditional pre-industrial societies to less than 1 in most cases in the present food system, as energy inputs, mainly in the form of fossil fuels, have gradually increased.

However, transport energy consumption is also significant, and if included in these ratios would mean that the ratio would decrease further. For example, when iceberg lettuce is imported to the UK from the USA by plane, the energy ratio is only 0.00786. In other words 127 calories of energy (aviation fuel) are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce across the Atlantic. If the energy consumed during lettuce cultivation, packaging, refrigeration, distribution in the UK and shopping by car was included, the energy needed would be even higher. Similarly, 97 calories of transport energy are needed to import 1 calorie of asparagus by plane from Chile, and 66 units of energy are consumed when flying 1 unit of carrot energy from South Africa.

Just how energy inefficient the food system is can be seen in the crazy case of the Swedish tomato ketchup. Researchers at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology analysed the production of tomato ketchup. The study considered the production of inputs to agriculture, tomato cultivation and conversion to tomato paste (in Italy), the processing and packaging of the paste and other ingredients into tomato ketchup in Sweden and the retail and storage of the final product. All this involved more than 52 transport and process stages.

The aseptic bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, placed in steel barrels, and then moved to Sweden. The five layered, red bottles were either produced in the UK or Sweden with materials from Japan, Italy, Belgium, the USA and Denmark. The polypropylene (PP) screw-cap of the bottle and plug, made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), was produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Additionally, LDPE shrink-film and corrugated cardboard were used to distribute the final product. Labels, glue and ink were not included in the analysis. -- Powerswitch

We should all be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves.

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  • Posted on April 15, 2008. Listed in:

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