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A Magazine for Sheffield

From “who should?” to “who could?”: Navigating the messy problem of food waste

How do we move away from guilt-inducing moral superiority to actually solving the problem?

A fancy display of fresh veg including leeks, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips and tomatoes.

Fresh veg from Roe Wood Allotment at Sheffield Fayre

Philippa Willitts

Food loss and waste are responsible for 8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, while also wasting the resources, including energy, water and labour, that were used to grow, rear or produce it.

But as soon as we are told that it is us – the bad, bad people who throw away a borderline-liquid cucumber that we’d forgotten at the back of the fridge – who have to fix this, a lot of us switch off. It’s hard to see how that one soggy vegetable is really responsible for the climate emergency, and we are all fighting other battles that can feel more urgent.

In a Festival of Debate event held online last week, Dr Eleanor Kent from Beanies Wholefoods Co-operative, David Dixon from Future Greens, and Rene Meijer from Food Works Sheffield got together to ask whose responsibility food waste really is, leading the audience through the systems and conventions that mean that the solution to the food waste problem is far more complex than our squishy cucumber.

How Future Greens reduces food waste

Future Greens is a vertical farming start-up based in Attercliffe that aims to tackle at least some of the food waste problem. David Dixon explained that, in general, 15% of food is wasted at a farm level before it even enters the wider food system.

The vertical farming approach has benefits that include better protection for its plants from pests and less vulnerability to poor weather, because the conditions are so carefully controlled.

All of this already reduces the waste a farm would normally produce.

Add to that that crops that would normally need to be imported from other parts of the world can be grown, as well as the farm’s proximity to the city, and you’ve got a promising future food solution.

Those very controlled conditions that help to produce better crops also usually result in a highly energy-intensive operation, however. But Future Greens has a solution for that, too: it converts organic waste from food businesses, using anaerobic digestion, into the very heat, nutrients and water that are needed to grow its leafy greens.

How Beanies Wholefoods reduces food waste

Eleanor Kent is a co-director at student-favourite Beanies in Crookesmoor, which minimises food waste by redistributing surplus food, thanks to its staff members' expertise and many years of experience.

Beanies has three outlets for surplus food, each of which serve a vital role in their system.

One is simply to discount the price of food that is likely to go to waste. Another is to donate food that is safe and usable but the staff know nobody would buy, perhaps due to the way it looks. Finally, they compost the rest, including the trimmings of veg that arrives unprepared and needs to have leaves removed before it goes on sale. The compost then goes back to the farmers, who don’t even need to make an extra trip: when they drop off their veg delivery, they pick up the compost to take back to the farm with them.

Beanies’ organic veg box scheme also helps the shop – and its suppliers – to reduce waste, because it is a more predictable model so staff know what to order, and when.

Kent describes this combination of solutions as “as close to a zero-waste food loop as possible” and credits close relationships with farmers and Beanies’ long history in the city with helping to tweak this system to, pretty much, perfection.

Food waste and the wider systems we live in

Rene Meijer spoke about how difficult it is to define exactly what food waste even is, never mind who is responsible for it.

Is an apple core food waste? Are potato peelings? If Tesco oversells BOGOFs on fragile produce, is the corporation or the individual who succumbs to the offer responsible for any inevitable waste? If organic produce is composted, is that wasted food or valuable compost?

Meijer reinforced that blaming “consumers” was too convenient, especially in a climate where we are conditioned to consume, consume, consume.

He named neo-liberal capitalism as a core problem: when businesses are solely motivated by money, they will overstock shelves – in the knowledge that people don’t like shopping in places with sparse produce on display – even though they know they will have waste at the end of the day. Or they will throw produce away rather than reduce prices and “devalue” their brand.

Essentially, they will make decisions based on the bottom line rather than what the responsible or sustainable thing to do is.

What can we do? What should we do?

In recognition of the futility of blaming individuals for systemic problems, Meijer’s suggestion to ask “who could?” rather than “who should?” is a strong one.

It might be that Tesco can do a million times more than I can, but there may still be small ways I can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be that either they do it, or I do it.

As is the case with every single social, political and climate-related issue, marginalisation and poverty play a significant role in how much an individual person can realistically do.

  • We need to move away from blaming the disabled person who needs pre-chopped onions and whose local “ethical” shop has a set of steps to get in. Instead, how do we move towards resolving the wider problems?
  • We need to hold back on criticising the person buying multiple bags of crisps and snacks because they daren’t turn their cooker on for fear of the bill. Instead, how can we focus our ire on the systems and society that allow power companies to make vast profits when people freeze to death?
  • We need to acknowledge that that single parent might be buying masses of ready meals because it’s the only way their children will be fed. Instead, how do we challenge the fact that a person can struggle to pay their rent when they have two jobs and parental responsibilities?

We also need to stop demanding explanations from those people of why they are shopping the way they are shopping. None of us are entitled to ask somebody to reveal the deeply personal and potentially traumatic reasons they might be doing what they do. And sometimes, a packet of crisps is just a packet of crisps. There doesn't have to be a tragic backstory.

We can work to create change and we can do our best in our own daily lives without side-eyeing how many mouldy old carrots our neighbours are throwing out and quietly judging them. And when it’s us throwing out the carrots, we can give ourselves a break, too.

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