‘In such abundance lies our choice,
As leaves a greater store of Fruit untoucht.’ (Milton)
The amount of food wasted is a burden we all carry on our shoulders. As a result of a large supply of food such as the one John Milton mentions, people became increasingly picky. With regard to supermarkets that tend to err on the side of caution and discard products prematurely in order to guarantee flawless goods, Milton’s critique is more topical than ever. The worldwide amount of wasted food adds up to around 1,3 bn tonnes annually even though most of it could still be consumed or recycled (cf. Chrisafis). Therefore, it should be illegal for supermarkets to waste food.
The same appalling element of truth that John Milton conveyed in his epic poem can be detected in a tweet concerning Cyclone Debbie in Australia in early 2017. A photo of a half-full supermarket shelf was labeled, ‘“Cyclone still isn’t bad enough to risk gluten free bread”’ (Rushton). Even though the tweet was allegedly meant to be a joke, it revealed that even in times of crisis the supply in many countries is too overwhelming. This abundance leaves consumers with no alternative but to buy outwardly perfect products. Consumer’s parameters to evaluate food include ‘cosmetic standards’ (Chandler) as well as expiration dates on foods. If food does not meet certain standards, people assume it is unsafe to consume. In reality, food that does not look appealing does not equal spoiled food. Untouched vegetables have not necessarily gone bad when they begin to wither after some time. Still, consumers are less likely to buy them because they do not meet the benchmark of a flawless good. Consequently, supermarkets separate them out for disposal. Additionally, according to Tristram Stuart, a food waste campaigner based in the UK, dates on food are technically supposed to assist shops with sorting products. Products that are soon to expire are put into the front row in order to sell every good before it expires and hence ‘prevent waste’ (Stuart). However, people tend to use these dates as an excuse to buy the food further back in the shelf that is still good for longer. As a result, the food whose expiration date is closer is eventually disposed of, producing more waste. Generous expiration dates and failed cosmetic standards are most likely to lead to food being wasted, rather than actual reasons for an objection (such as mould) and, therefore, surplus food should not be simply discarded.
Pursuing this idea further, the question arises: How can food waste be reduced? The answer is simple: Surplus food needs to be used more effectively. One way of paving the way for this approach is to forbid supermarkets to waste food by law. This way, they will not be able to continue previous practices of destroying almost expired or unappealing looking products deliberately (cf. Chrisafis) but will be forced to redistribute surplus food. Several countries have called for action in reducing food waste and at the same time balance out malnutrition. In particular, France has shown that taking on the fight for food-waste reduction is a manageable challenge. In February 2016 a breakthrough law regarding food waste was passed in France. As a result, supermarkets with a floor area from 400 square metres onwards are forbidden to waste food; instead, they are obliged to sign donation contracts with food charities and food banks or elsewise pay a fine of €3,750 (cf. Chrisafis). Jacques Bailet, head of the French food bank Banques Alimentaires, argues that food banks often lack ‘nutritional balance’, which means that there is an absence of meat, fruit, and vegetables (cf. Chrisafis). Redistributing supermarkets’s surplus food allows people in need (such as unemployed or homeless people who have to rely on food banks) to afford a more balanced diet. Consequently, through redistribution, society-wide malnutrition can be avoided.
Writer Ray Bradbury once claimed, ‘Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.’ (Bradbury) The quote suggests that the existence of trash and treasure is balanced, but what if most of the trash can be turned into a treasure, too? Clearly, the environment would benefit from reducing food waste. The surplus food that is not consumed by people who frequent the food banks mentioned in the previous paragraph is both trash and treasure. To turn it into a treasure only, the food should be fully exploited. Instead of disposing of unconsumed surplus food and leaving it to rot in a landfill, which will contaminate ground water and eventually emit harmful greenhouse gases, such as methane, it should be used for energy production. With the help of anaerobic decomposition through plants, which to some extent functions like digestion, food waste can be turned into biogas, which in turn can be harnessed in shops in the form of electricity (for lights, refrigerators etc.) or fuel cars (cf. Clark Energy). Biogas is a reliable and renewable source of energy. Even in the absence of sun, which is needed for solar-sourced power, or wind, which is needed for wind power, anaerobic decomposition can produce energy (cf. Feldman). A pioneer in converting food waste into biogas is the supermarket Sainsbury’s in the UK. In 2014, Sainsbury’s began to produce its own energy from inedible food (cf. Feldman). According to the company, at that time Sainsbury’s already produced ‘enough energy to power 2,500 homes each year’ due to this practice (Feldman, “UK Supermarket”). Two years later, in 2016, further success became visible: 10 supermarkets were powered by biogas, and more are scheduled. (cf. Gosden).
In conclusion, the massive amounts of food supermarkets dispose of indicate that too many goods are produced. However, as this line of argumentation has shown, as long as food waste is redistributed properly or recycled, overproduction seems to be more beneficial than underproduction, and the benefits outweigh the harm done. Therefore, in the future, more countries should ban supermarkets from wasting food, and more shops need to adopt policies like Sainsbury’s to recycle it effectively. Furthermore, not only large supermarkets should be concerned, but also smaller ones. Additionally, since it is not supermarkets alone that are the foes concerning food waste, restaurants, cafés, school cafeterias, and private consumers should face stricter policies too. To achieve that, more needs to be done in food education in order to show people how food can be turned from waste to taste.
Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Joshua Odell Editions, 1994. Print.
Chandler, Adam. “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 15 July 2016. Web. 10 May 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/american-food-waste/491513/>.
Chrisafis, Angelique. “French Law Forbids Food Waste by Supermarkets.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 May 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/04/french-law-forbids-food-waste-by-supermarkets>.
Feldman, Jonathan. “UK Supermarket To Use Food Waste To Power Itself.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 July 2014. Web. 27 May 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/24/supermarket-food-biogas-power-uk_n_5611257.html>.
Gosden, Emily. “Sainsbury’s Builds its Own Power Plants Amid Energy Shortage Fears.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 05 May 2016. Web. 27 May 2017. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/04/sainsburys-builds-its-own-power-plants-amid-energy-shortage-fear/>.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. David Scott. Kastan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2005. Print.
Rushton, Gina (ginarush). “Cyclone still isn’t bad enough to risk gluten free bread.”
26 March 2017, 04:47 PM. Tweet.
Stuart, Tristram. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. Penguin Group, 2009. Print.
“Biogas.” Clarke Energy. Kohler Company, n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.
Sarah was listening to ‘More Than You Know’ by Axwell Λ Ingrosso while editing this article.