From soil to plate or soil to bin?

January 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

After weeks of grey damp clouds, winter has well and truly arrived in London. I am not talking of the fleeting flurry of snow but rather of the temperature tumbling below zero. As the frosts have turned the waterlogged clay soil into sheets of frozen sod, work on the allotment has ceased. So, having cleaned the fork and spade, I do what any self-respecting gardener does: pour myself a cup of tea, pull out the seed catalogues and put together a plan for the coming season.

With a six-fold increase in our growing space, this year’s cropping plan is turning into an enjoyable winter project. My allotment and garden maps include details of rows, planting distances and – being slightly Germanic – an approximate timeline for successional sowing. With the help of Dr Hessayon’s The Vegetable Expert I could work out theoretical yields but that would be tempting fate. Any produce Mr M and I harvest in 2013 will be a function of the health of the soil, our mulching, weeding and watering efforts, the efficacy of our natural pest control systems, the weather gods,… One thing is sure though: none of our produce will suffer the same fate as much of the fruit and vegetables in the UK.

Shameful food waste 

According to last week’s report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers on global food waste nearly 30% of all vegetables grown in the UK are not harvested. Produce rots in the field – wasting the energy, water, land and nutrients needed to grow it – because supermarkets decree that we do not want misshapen, wrinkled vegetables. And if they are harvested and make it through the food processing and distribution chain, over a quarter of them are thrown out, often unused, contributing significantly to the 112 kg of food that the average Briton wastes per year.

To anybody who grows their own food, these figures are sheer madness! And when you factor in the data on the water(*), energy, land and other resources needed to produce food, the picture is even more shocking. It would be like me investing time, effort and money in the whole of the allotment, i.e. digging, composting and mulching 125 square metres of soil, planting and sowing row upon row, meticulously harvesting water and spending hours in the summer watering the vegetables,… and then ignoring half of the food or throwing it straight in the bin!

Is food waste inevitable?

According to Love Food Hate Waste (a UK not-for-profit organisation that promotes behaviour changes to address such levels of waste) households waste food for many reasons, from confusion about ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates to overestimating portion sizes or not planning the grocery shopping. LFHW estimates that about 60% of all domestic food waste is avoidable. This could bring the average food waste per head down to about 45 kg per year. More respectable than current levels but still three times that of the average German!

As I was intrigued about our own levels of food waste, I actually took part in an LFHW challenge in November. Between Mr M’s northern thriftiness and me having grown up with a mother whose kitchen practices were shaped by wartime rationing, I knew that our food waste was nowhere near the British average. However, to work out how much further we could reduce it and identify remaining stubborn areas I meticulous weighed all food waste for a fortnight.

At the end of the challenge the list of food wasted was mercifully short: an egg marooned behind packs of photographic film, a few tablespoons of cream, a couple of inches of an experimental but disastrous fruit loaf and half a dozen fatty bacon rinds, which I fed to the birds.

Wartime food advice, just as relevant 70 years on (except point 6)

Wartime food advice, just as relevant 70 years on  (except point 6, which could be replaced with join your local food resilience group)

Towards zero

The audit highlighted that I need a better film storage system and confirmed what I had suspected: cream is a waste black spot as even the smallest tub is too large for the two of us. The LFHW challenge also reassured me that many of our practices are working and near zero food waste is not only feasible but within reach.

Here are half a dozen habits and perspectives that are helping Mr M and me inch towards no food waste?

  • Drawing up a weekly menu plan before making a grocery list avoids  buying too much food.
  • Fewer meat or fish meals and more vegetable-based ones means meat and fish are treats that are not to be wasted whilst plenty of vegetables means we are flexible to tweak the weekly menu plan to suit our fancies (e.g. impromptu pastas, pilafs, potato cakes, soups, omelet…).
  • Cooking from scratch, using pantry staples, means more flavour, tailored portion sizes and less waste.
  • Leftovers are great, often better than the original meal!
  • Be resource rather than waste minded. Is waste really waste or an ingredient? Stale bread goes into breadcrumbs, a chicken carcass into stock, orange skins into candied peel, leftover potatoes and vegetables into bubble and squeak… As for unavoidable waste, most of that goes into the compost heap, wormery or bokashi system.
  • Most importantly of all… food is a priority in our home. If food is a source of pleasure (from planning and grocery shopping to cooking and eating), you value food. And you do not waste what you value, whether it is the leftovers of a roasted joint or beans nurtured from seedlings to 8-foot bean stalks!

***

Data from ‘Global Food – Waste Not, Want Not’ by the Institute for Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), Love Food Hate Waste and The Guardian. (*) Check out page 12 of the IMechE report to learn how much water is needed to produce 1 kg of apples, potatoes or even beef.

The Love Food Hate Waste website has tips on portion sizes and storage as well as 101 ideas of how to whip up a quick meal with leftover ingredients.

Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

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