Cheap food isn’t to throw away

February 9th, 2013 by Richard Lord

Seeing destitute people at Victoria Station in London rushing by outdoor tables of eateries and snatching disposable plates of leftover food abandoned by paying customers is a reminder of how many people are perpetually hungry. Many of us take food for granted.

About one third of the weight of Guernsey’s household waste is made up of food waste. Some of this weight is vegetable peelings but much of the weight is food that has spoiled.

Guernsey’s household food waste is currently left out on the street for collection largely in black bags where it is vulnerable to gull and cat attack. These animals rip open the bags in search of food and leave a mess on the pavement, which is time consuming to clean up.

A gull rummaging through household waste on Pedvin Street, St Peter Port on 7 May 2012 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

This problem is heightened during the longer daylight hours of spring and summer when gulls raise their young.

The cost to dispose of household food waste at the Mont Cuet landfill in 2013 is over £152 per tonne, which adds up to a total figure approaching £1 million per year for Guernsey residents.

The food waste at Mont Cuet attracts thousands of gulls and rats, and decomposes to produce foul odours that prevailing winds can carry to nearby residential properties.

Gulls are attracted in their thousands to the food waste rotting in the Mont Cuet landill in Vale (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Soil coverage of each day’s waste disposal at the landfill tries to minimise the animal problem.

But when decomposing food is buried, the bacterial process of decomposition uses up available oxygen, and food decomposes anaerobically.

Anaerobic decomposition not only produces foul odours but it also produces methane, which is a flammable and potent greenhouse gas.

Burning methane from the Mont Cuet landfill on 29 May 2009 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

The States of Guernsey Public Services Department has installed an extraction and piping system at Mont Cuet at some cost to the Guernsey refuse rate payer so that the methane can be collected and burned under controlled conditions.

Minced meat thrown out in St Peter Port household waste (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

During the twentieth century, in the USA, the UK, and other countries with growing affluence, the percentage of disposable income devoted to buying food decreased markedly.

This has given consumers the opportunity to increase the purchase of discretionary goods and services, as the sourcing and acquisitation of food occupies less of their time.

However, the trend is reversing itself as global food prices rise with increased pressure on food production caused by a growing human population and increased affluence demanding more energy intense foods.

Chicken liver pâté removed by a gull from a bag of St Peter Port household waste (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

In an affluent society, food may be cheap in monetary terms, but because all food has to grow and this takes time, its inherent value in time and energy to bring it to our tables is in excess of the value given to it in the market place. Food, after all, is indispensable to our lives. We have to have it no matter what the price.

Some governments and multinational and international institutions provide large agricultural and fisheries subsidies to shift the burden of the true cost of food from the consumer to the tax payer or to feed growing budget deficits.

A black bag of St Peter Port household food waste opened by a gull (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Lower food prices require economies of scale and large scale mechanisation of production, which can result in the destruction of natural habitats and wildlife.

Cheap energy allows for cheaper food as energy-intense fertiliser increases production, and facilitates large scale mechanisation of the harvest.

An often quoted statement about food supplied for affluent consumers is “it takes about 10 calories of energy to deliver a calorie of food on a plate.”

Food production is also a significant contributor to global carbon emissions. A 100 gram serving of raw beef is responsible for the equivalent of 1.8 kilograms of C0₂ emissions and the use of 1.2 kWh of energy. A kilogram of Brazilian beef produced on cleared Amazon rainforest land is calculated to contribute the equivalent of 300 kilograms of C0₂.

So food has a cost not only on our wallet but on finite fossil fuel resources, on our environment, and on society at large.

Weetabix and unopened packet of pork slices in household waste on Hauteville, St Peter Port on 19 June 2012 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

The true cost of food isn’t cheap even when shops tempt us with two-for-one and other bulk discount price offers, and price reductions due to approaching sell-by dates.

These offers often tempt us to purchase more food than needed. Many of these offers may lead us to waste food and money unnecessarily.

And food certainly isn’t cheap when it is thrown away because of the extra cost of disposing of it.

Minimising food waste by shopping wisely and making use of left-overs saves us a large sum of money, reduces environmental harm, and significantly reduces the problems and costs of waste disposal.


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