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Waste, Glorious Waste!

Oliver and his Dickensian friends may have suffered from a lack of food, but fast forward 150 years and we enter the era of food wastage.

Most citizens of Western Europe were once under-fed, until sedentary lifestyles, supermarkets, advertising and fried chicken kicked in around the second half of the 20th Century. For most of its history, humanity has faced a tenuous relationship with food. Prior to jet-setting stawberries and cruising cucumbers, most people relied on production in the urban hinterland or their own two hands to feed, which was at the mercy of eratic weather conditions. Indeed, the eminent historian Fernand Braudel recounts the food shortages and famines that were not uncommon over the course of the last millennium.

Self-sufficiency, however, was thwarted with urbanisation, the privatisation of land and the production-for-exportation system under European colonialism. U.S. academic Mike Davis provides great insight into the unravelling power relations in Victorian times from Brazil to Borneo. Today, this compelling dichotomy pervades. In the developing world, the lower social strata are subject to under-nourishment and lack of access to food. In contrast, amongst the highest social strata around the world, people have access to an over-abundance of food. On the one hand, rising incomes have opened a plethora of choices, for some. For others, daily nutrition is a struggle. The number of under-nourished people has hit 1.02 billion [1] according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Then there is the complication of growing obesity, which by the way, is far from confined to developed countries. I realised this on a trip to Venezuela last year, where the average male waistline seems to be at least 38 inches. In Mexico, 20-30% of the population is heavily overweight. McCann Erickson have published some interesting research called FatVille [2] which looks into the heavy future of Britian. The fact that some people are starving whilst others are feasting points to one problem: food distribution and price allocation. There are multiple market hands at work here, and they ain't so invisible.

One spin-off of post-modern food consumption is waste. Both the food itself and the packaging is discarded by the truck-load every day. Unwrapping most items is like playing "pass the parcel" and ridiculously cautious "eat-by-dates" have made consumers paranoid about food poisoning (by they way, you can't catch salmonella from three-day-young carrots). The fact that finite and semi-finite resources are used indiscriminately to package all this stuff (oil for plastics and timber for cardboard) adds to the dwindling resource dilemma and puts more pressure on virgin land, such as the Pampas or Amazonia, to be handed over to the combine harvester.

What do all these issues mean? Are we going to run out of food? Probably not as long as you've got money in the bank. Are we going to drown in refuse? Yes, unless, all packaging is made biodegradable. Have I run out of questions to ask? Yes.

Read the article which inspired this news update [3].

Next weeks inspiration [4]

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