The Blog

How much do we value our food?

As you'd imagine from someone who makes chutney for a living, I spend a lot of time chopping fruit. One of the best things about this (apparently menial) task, is the time it affords for thinking: my kitchen colleagues and I can put a multitude of problems to right, over a few kilos of mangoes. But just as thought-provoking, is the prolonged contact with the produce itself.

A well covered report, released last month by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, included the shocking estimate that up to half of the world's food is wasted before it reaches a human mouth. The links the report makes between a country's economic development, and the way is wastes food, is fascinating.

Food waste is happening everywhere, but the less developed a country is, the higher up the supply chain waste occurs. In the long journey from farm to fork, in LEDCs we can blame poor storage, transport, and distribution systems for wastage. In developed, western countries, more efficient production systems mean we waste less, in terms of volume. But the waste occurs closer to the consumer- as a result of consumer attitudes. A lot of the time, we simply choose not to eat the food that has taken so long to reach our plates and shops. Our supply chains may be better- but is our type of waste worse?

The report got us at 'Rubies in the Rubble' thinking even more about something we've known for a while. If we really want to tackle food waste, the UK may not necessarily be the best place to do it, unless we rummage through 30 million households. But with LEDCs , one gets the impression that, although it's a real issue, production inefficiencies will in time sort themselves out, as natural by-products of economic development. After all, it is our distribution systems and our consumer preferences that the developing world is adopting. The outcome of this, the report says, is that

'An increasing proportion of the world's population is removed from involvement in and knowledge of the food supply system, merely becoming food consumers at the end of a supply chain. This creates a culture with little understanding of the source and value of food.' The days of slaughtering a chicken from your own coop for a Sunday

roast are long gone, but it was only a generation ago that our grandmothers went to the butcher to inspect, smell and choose their cuts of meat, which were hung out for customers who knew what freshness looked and smelled like, and who did not have to rely on use-by dates stamped onto plastic packaging. Surely it's our disengagement from food, and from the effort and energy that goes into getting it to us, that causes us to undervalue it. Getting to know the mangoes, or whatever I'm chopping that day- which colours, shapes, softnesses and smells- make for the best chopping, or are the easiest to cut; the juiciest to eat- through direct handling makes for more care and attention than I've ever granted to a single piece of fruit before. And because all of the produce we use is surplus, which would have otherwise gone to waste, each mango chopped stacks up the satisfaction that this is one more mango put to a good use. Developing societies waste food despite their best efforts; our society chooses to waste it. What is the point in the developing world becoming increasingly efficient, if it also adopts our distastefully casual food attitude? Rubies in the Rubble may not be making the largest quantifiable impact by staying in the UK to use food waste. But we live in a country where we think that using leftovers looks stingy, not sensible. If we can make a first class product, which sells at a good price, and which consumers are proud to put on the table, from otherwise discarded produce, I think the symbolic significance is worth it.