Reading Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal


When New York freegan Madeline Nelson goes supermarket dumpster-diving and comes up with a gigantic wheel of artisanal cheddar, or a bagful of frozen geese for roasting, or a dozen eggs and a 10-pound bar of chocolate, she’s dabbling in the shallows of an ocean of wasted food so voluminous it defies imagination. Our city reportedly has a surplus of 50 million pounds of food a year, of which only 20 million is redistributed to the hungry—and the rest discarded. And as any good freegan can tell you, that waste is not just potato peelings and bits of gristle. Nelson says that in an average supermarket’s dumpster, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, she expects to find “loads of produce, much of it in excellent condition . . . yogurt, cheese, bread, cakes, and cookies close to their ‘sell by’ date. Eggs, often nowhere near ‘sell by,’ but with one cracked egg in the dozen.” The list goes on and on.

The directive to “clean your plate because there are starving children in Africa” has become a cliché, but the admonishment is now more accurate than ever. Because our food supply has become almost entirely globalized, it’s literally true that when we buy more food than we need and squander it by either consuming too much or discarding it, we’re taking food out of the mouths of the starving. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, a new book by British reporter Tristram Stuart, lays bare the ways in which the developed world blithely goes about tossing food away (some estimates say the U.S. discards half of all the food we produce). It delves into why we do this, as well as the disastrous consequences that follow for both developing populations and the environment. The book’s scope is vast—encompassing farms, manufacturers, fisheries, and shops, and even the evolutionary (now nonsensical) reasons why humans are attracted to unnecessary abundance and waste.

It seems as if every nonfiction food book published recently is either a fetishized account of finding oneself or what I consider “food shock-lit”—reportage in exhausting detail of how every single thing you put in your mouth causes evil things to happen elsewhere. Waste represents a paragon of the latter type, but on a subject that hasn’t been covered as much as, say, factory animal farming, or the environmental and human health consequences of industrialized food. (Although, of course, all of these things connect.) But in this case, we can each do something easy about it—easier, at least, than giving up hamburgers and ultra-low food prices: We could just stop throwing away the food in our own homes.

Some of the most powerful stories in Waste are about farmers who would prefer not to trash the fruits of their labor, but, because of contractual obligations, are forced to do so. A farmer in Britain shows Stuart a huge container of carrots that are being made into animal feed because they have a slight curve—the supermarket that buys them will only accept perfectly straight specimens, so that customers can peel them in one easy stroke. (In the U.S., many of these carrots go to “baby carrot” manufacturers, who trim the vegetables down to the familiar nubbins.) Another farmer had to leave an entire harvest of spinach to rot in the field because a sample batch had a few blades of grass in it, a result of the farmer using fewer herbicides. And Birds Eye requires that a crop of peas be delivered for freezing within 150 minutes of the moment when the first pea was picked. If there’s a delay, or the peas are not sweet enough, they’re discarded.

By necessity, Waste is dense with statistics. Unfortunately, because every organization measures waste differently (are orange peels waste? Is food wasted if it was meant for humans, but goes to livestock?), and because most of the numbers from corporations are self-reported, Stuart must constantly hedge and clarify his statements. And extreme wonkiness does not make for a good read. The author’s best and most galvanizing writing is about bagfuls of discarded fresh sushi and landfills heaped with ripe bananas.

The problem doesn’t stop with discarded food. Although Stuart doesn’t explicitly argue against eating meat, raising livestock is perhaps the most ruinous practice discussed in the book. The system of waste goes like this: First, the grains fed to farm animals account for about 40 percent of the world’s supply. But it takes 10 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef—that grain could have fed more hungry people than the resulting small amount of meat can. Then, instead of eating every bit of an animal as we did in the past, much of the offal and scraps from meat production gets thrown away or goes into dog food. Cattle, writes Stuart, “give back only 20 percent of the food they consume. Around a third of that then gets wasted by shops and consumers, so only around 13 percent of the calories in the original arable harvest [the grain] is actually consumed by people.”

The main thrust of the book asks little sacrifice on the part of the reader—don’t tip tons of dead, edible fish back into the ocean; don’t require carrots to be perfectly straight; don’t buy more than you can consume. If the entire supply chain, from producer to consumer, would agree to stop gratuitous waste, we could all go back to eating our hamburgers and feeling good about ourselves. But it’s obvious that Stuart also holds more radical views that might turn off the average reader—making the perfect the enemy of the good. He takes parents to task for letting babies be messy with their food, thus wasting some of it. He suggests that all countries adopt China’s one-child rule, without mentioning the consequences that policy has had for female babies.

In fact, the book simmers with barely suppressed, if seemingly justified, rage: “In that all of us in the affluent world deprive others of food necessary for survival, often for the most whimsical motives, such as filling our fridges with food we never eat, it is difficult to escape from the conclusion that in this remote, indirect and ignorance-muffled way, I, you, and everyone you know behave murderously towards fellow human beings.”

Next time, let’s all ask for a doggie bag.