One morning a few years ago as I was walking around Brooklyn I stumbled upon a waffle cart that was handing out free waffles with piles of mealworms and crickets on them. The cart was set up by The Economist to hype their issue on the future of food. I had a waffle with both insects on it. It wasn’t bad. The mealworms had an earthy taste, and the crickets, virtually tasteless, left little legs in my teeth. Other than that, they weren’t awful. Insects might actually make up a good portion of human diets in the next fifty years, and we might need to explore the possibility in order to feed the growing population and reduce the effects of food production on the planet.
The future of food is about far more than just what we will eat. The future of food is a bundle of issues that includes climate change, labour practices, sustaining health in a changed climate, and global trade. Food production is so intertwined with the major issues confronting humanity in the next few decades, one cannot talk about just the food.
For example, food production, according the the UN, is going to need to increase 60 percent to keep up with the 9-billion-person population for which we are headed. Livestock already accounts for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry worldwide. Beefing up (pun intended) livestock production is not the answer. Neither is maintaining the architecture of agricultural labour that exists in the U.S., where 78 percent of workers are immigrants, and a shocking 50 percent of them are undocumented.
The culture, therefore, needs to shift in terms of what we allow in our mouths, and that starts with the culture of food that has contributed to both waste and inequality. Food culture is on the rise for sure. Just look at the number of shows devoted to shaming us for not eating well. While it is widely acknowledged that our food sources are one of the largest producers of carbon emissions, little is being done on the cultural front to address this. Foodists are demanding more and more from the industry, but their exaggerated tastes might kill us all eventually.
Methods of eating, cultures of food, and forms of food are always evolving and creating new ideas about what can be shoved into our mouths. Think of bubble gum, soft-serve ice cream, and energy drinks. They were all 20th century inventions and caused us to rethink the possibilities of food. And we need to keep rethinking those possibilities. Great strides are being made to reduce the harm our food sources inflict on the planet by some of the companies that caused the issues in the first place, but also by small farmers and food activists. Scientists are at the front of these efforts, pushing innovations that need to be adopted. One such innovation is the Impossible Burger, a plant-based vegan alternative to beef that reduces the environmental impact of red meat by nearly 90 percent.
Alas, overall, harmful trends in food production seems to be the direction in which the industry is going. In southeastern Spain, there is a large formation that is accurately described as the Sea of Plastic. It is a massive network of plastic greenhouses that stretches as far as the eye can see. Aside from the awful environmental impact of the chemically treated produce there and the toxins distributed into the atmosphere from the plastic coverings, it is also a labour practices nightmare. Because of the terrible working conditions, much of the labour has to be imported, and more than one commentator has mentioned that the workers are basically “Moroccan slaves.”
While there are depressing developments in the food industry—ones that are going to take a lot of political will to correct— the good news is that innovating what and how we eat could help solve many of the issues of inequality. The bad news is that it will take a massive effort to reform our tastes. Trying to give up entire food groups is a tall order even for those of us who care about how food affects the environment. As with most lifestyle changes that are going to be necessary to address climate change, such as complete independence from fossil fuels, creating a sustainable future for food is going to require a fundamental rethinking of everyday life.
One of the biggest revolutions in commercial food production was the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The information manufacturers are now required to provide helps us not only to regulate our caloric intake but also to realise just how chemically saturated our food is. In addition to nutritional facts on foods or sanitation ratings on restaurants, we need to start having environmental impact and labour condition ratings on products and restaurants. This would be a start to just and sustainable eating.
There needs to be a full cultural shift in our relationship to food. Some of our gut reactions are so destructive. A new study, for instance, about food deliverers sampling customers’ food focused not on the fact that these people were hungry and making awful wages, but that this practice was gross. We clearly have some misplaced priorities. Steven Poole doesn’t hold back when he claims “Western industrial civilization is eating itself stupid”. Poole’s point is that in the tsunami of food programming, books, and reinvigorated restaurant culture, a mark of a social ‘yahoo’ now is someone who cannot talk about food at excruciating length in any gathering.
Food is politically safe. It tends to offend few people in polite conversation. But it should. Our current eating practices are not only killing our environment, but also the people who have few rights in the countries that rely on their labour. We need to shift the conversation and culture around food, so that no chocolate mousse or unpronounceable cheese escapes the same scrutiny we apply to fossil fuels.
“Don’t waste cucumber skin and seeds—turn them into a cooling summer drink”.
“How to make the most of ripe tomatoes”.
“Is it safe to eat mouldy jam? Theresa May thinks so”.
These are just some of the titles of the many food waste articles that have recently been flooding the media (with some interesting articles, and others less so). In the U.K., brands and people have all been pledging to reduce their food waste. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition about food and our relationship to it called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate.
So why all the fuss? Because not only is food waste morally unethical, but also our food consumption habits must undergo huge transformations in order to stop the planet from crumbling down or burning up. To lift the mood on that heavy but urgent topic, I wanted to have a more careful look at what’s happening around food waste, who are the people actually changing the game, and what’s next technology-wise.
The first step toward a world where food waste is not an issue is changing our attitude and approach to it. This concept is not recent (during wartime wasting food was out of the question), but today, the urgency surrounding that matter is added on top. We’re not going to transform the problem of the huge quantity of food wasted only by drinking beer made from surplus bread or by learning how to properly peel off the trickiest aliments. But what these ideas are about is exactly what needs to become common thinking: approaching food with a different mentality and being aware of how much food we waste for no justifiable reason at all.
In London, the Brixton Pound Cafe is doing just that and more. This pay-what-you-can surplus food cafe is a radical space with radical ideas where anyone can enjoy veggie and vegan food. Screen Shot talked to environmentalist and the cafe’s chef Sean Roy Parker about food waste and why making surplus food look sexy is the way to go. “The issue is that food waste is shrouded in secrecy because supermarkets’ habits are criminal, why would they want you to know how much food they throw away every day?” Parker notes, adding that “By turning surplus food into affordable meals, we are solving two problems simultaneously: reducing food waste and tackling income inequality. The bonus is that the food is fantastically healthy and tasty”. This attitude is one that local communities should adopt concerning food waste, because every little helps (even Tesco’s ‘reduced’ items).
But what about the rest of the U.K.? The rest of the world? Too Good To Go is an app operating in twelve countries, with its main goal being to save some food—food that is ‘too good to go’. The app allows you to see what food you can pick up in your vicinity before it gets thrown away at the end of the day from restaurants and food shops. This way, you can support your local businesses while contributing to a better environment. Simultaneously, the businesses get to reduce their waste and get potential new customers to try out their food. Still feeling sceptical? Too Good To Go’s website states that since 2016, the company saved over 746,760 meals in the U.K. alone.
Talking to Screen Shot about Too Good To Go’s early days, marketing manager Anoushka Grover said, “When we first started, the concept of food waste wasn’t really understood. Once you show people the consequences of their actions, everyone is a lot quicker to take a stand and make a change. Conscious consumerism has been on the rise for a number of years, but we’ve definitely seen it snowballing over the last few years”. So what’s next for Too Good To Go? “We have set some goals for 2020 which include inspiring 50 million people to take action against food waste, partnering with 75,000 food businesses, impacting legislation in 5 countries and supporting 500 schools in educating about food waste, ultimately saving 100 million meals from landfill”, Anoushka told us.
The last element that could make a big change in this food waste cycle is technology. We frequently use it to solve other problems, so why not try implementing it here as well? IKEA is attempting to cut food waste in its kitchens (think about all those meatballs) with an AI bin designed to recognise and monitor what gets thrown away. This ‘intelligent’ bin was made by U.K. technology startup Winnow Vision and uses a camera and smart scales to keep track of what types of food end up in the rubbish bin. Winnow estimates that it has saved almost $30 million worth of food so far.
Awareness of food waste is definitely there and on the rise, but the global response it has received so far is inadequate considering the size of the problem. We need to understand that food waste is not only happening on our tables, it’s also happening with farms and food companies, meaning that all the resources that went into making your food go to waste as well.
There is currently a lack of data and research that are needed in order to accurately estimate the full social, economic, and environmental benefits of food waste reduction. That said, let us be mindful of the bigger picture and make a change—whether it’s by scraping off mould on your jam like Theresa, contributing to the Brixton Pound Cafe, or using apps like Too Good To Go.
This article is a result of our Screen Shot workshop held at the V&A on Friday 28 June during the FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition. In this participatory installation and therapy session, participants gave us the ingredients for the perfect food waste article.