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Moving Mountains: hunger and waste in an age of austerity

Posted by Natalie in Environment - 4 August 2011

One grim irony – and there are many – of the international debt crisis, aside from the obvious problems of limitless growth within finite resources, is that despite global attempts at austerity, waste continues to occur at unimaginable levels. Italy, for example, whose debt mountain is the second largest in Europe, wastes over 30 per cent of its food, which works out at about $53 million. Reducing waste certainly won’t be the dynamite that blows a hole through that mountain of debt, which is a mind-boggling €240bn this year alone, but it will make a small dent, and surely save as much as some other individual austerity measures already suggested or implemented. It is not just Italy where this happens.  The US wastes the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil a year in uneaten food.  In the UK, half the food produced on farms is thrown away, amounting to an eye-watering £20bn food mountain.

So why does such waste happen? Firstly, consumers are led by omnipotent advertisers to believe that appearance is an indicator of quality. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation advises people to consider safety, nutrition and taste of food rather than the way it looks. An outrageous amount of perfectly edible produce gets discarded daily because it looks ‘off’, or in other words, not the technicolour stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing in ads (and on the shelves).

That freegans can survive almost solely on the contents of skips outside supermarkets is testament to the senseless waste that occurs in the name of aesthetics. In addition, consumers are urged to buy much more than they need, whether it be larger portion sizes in restaurants or two-for-one offers in shops.  Financial efficiency has been so misaligned that it actually became, in many cases, cheaper to waste food than to just buy what was needed.

In the end, of course, just as with homes, loans and everything else, there comes a point when the bubble bursts. The sudden gaping hole, never invisible but until now ignored,  between the abstract ‘market’ and concrete reality threatens to swallow us all. We can no longer afford to waste. Food, money, resources, time are all precious and we must use them wisely.  This is arguably more important right now than ever before.

Instead of amending or fixing the system that got us into this mess, it seems like those in charge are building it up again identically, brick by brick; taking back their abusive but irresistible lover, hoping this time things’ll be different.   The waste that uncapped capitalism encourages continues, as does environmental degradation and widening social inequality.  That people in Somalia (and across the developing world, for that matter) starve to death in droves while Italy alone wastes  food that could produce 580 million meals a year is nothing short of obscene.

This article was reposted on Next Starfish.

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One Response

  • Lesley says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking! I wonder if it’s a ‘next generation’ problem in Italy as consumerism takes hold? It seems that most of the older generation have an ‘orto’ [allotment] and grow food enough for all the family. They also grow enough tomatoes – the staple basis for most Italian dishes – to preserve and store over winter. You can of course buy jars or tins of tomatoes very cheaply but, never the less, the tradition remains. We can only hope that the young will learn from their elders and realise that, not only is it a more conscientious way to live but also that the product is far better. Of course this only applies to those living in the countryside.

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