Monday, May 7, 2012


Well, that might be an overstatement.  I officially enrolled in a PhD at the start of April.  So far, I've read one book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, by Tristram Stuart and taken quite a few notes that may or may not be relevant and useful but are definitely interesting.

So basically, from farm to table, the developed world wastes around 50% of all the food we produce.  That's pretty scandalous.  Stuart comes across as a pretty frugal sort, and, as a freegan/journalist he has seen the inside of a few dumpsters in his time.  He doesn't like waste.  That's for sure.  I don't like the thought of wasting billions of tonnes of perfectly good food while more than a billion people starve in this world, and while not cleaning your plate won't do much - directly - to influence the starving children in Africa, Stuart argues that conspicuous consumption in the West and our great hoarding of surplus means there is less food for the poor to eat on the global market.  I'm not 100% convinced.  Yes, this system is F#%*ed but buying less and wasting less might just lead to producing less globally - rather than the equal redistribution of rations.  If developed countries stopped buying so much of the world's grains there would be less money in that industry and poorer nations might well focus on making cell phones or bio fuel or something else.  As I have heard many times: we don't have a food shortage, we have a distribution problem.

While visiting friends up north who has massive permaculture gardens I was impressed with his attitude to abundance and waste.  "We don't have waste." Mike said, throwing a bunch of edible vegetables in the the scrap bin.  "Everything that doesn't get eaten goes back into the soil."  I liked that.  I enjoy abundance.  That's a pretty human thing, isn't it?  Scarcity scares me.  I reckon animals behave much better (for the most part) in states of abundance - there's generosity and no need to fight over scarce resources.  That's the feeling that I get being at Burning events, where no money is needed and there's a culture of gifting.

Abundance can make people behave irrationally - wastefully - indulgently, but it can also bring out the best in people.  Stuart describes “…the ceremony known as ‘potlatch’ observed among native peoples such as the Kwakiutl, in the American north-west, Canada and Alaska.  In the potlatch ceremony, chiefs  invited guests from neighbouring villages and gave away box-loads of fish and whale oil, dried fish, heaps of blankets, furs and ceremonial masks.  Fish oil would be poured onto the fire or guzzled  in competitive feasting events. (Stuart, 2009, p.176)."  Despite the appearance of irrationality, potlatch is said to have  benefited the society as a whole.  Similarly in Melanesia and New Guinea the ‘big man’ encouraged extra production in order to give more food away, generating more food production and redistribution between villages.  Through overproducing the contemporary food industry resembles a potlatch – resulting in an epidemic of obesity – yet much of the food is not redistributed to those who need it most.

Over-producing food also means that when crops face devastation, rather than suffer a famine, developed countries simply waste a little less than usual.  If this kind of abundance wasn't over-exploiting limited natural resources and contributing to environmental destruction - or so unevenly distributed - it would be a pretty sweet deal.  If we could produce food in a more sustainable way, distribute it more evenly, and efficiently recycle the waste in the ways that Stuart suggests (his preferred options are in this order: Pig feed, bio gas, compost) then would producing more than we can eat, and the resulting abundance, be such a bad thing?


  1. Hey Isa, great to see you are posting again. Love the new layout. Dumpster diving has been discussed a bit in NZ as a way to stop the food waste. Have you read the 21 dollar challenge? Basically they try and fight the food waste mantra by doing food audits and meal planning, it's pretty cool: or Take care! Kim

  2. Hi Kim, I think it's great that dumpster diving is raising awareness about the extent of food wastage but it's only the tip of the iceberg. A huge proportion of food is wasted even before it gets to the supermarket - often because the industry has a perception that people won't eat knobbly carrots etc. - but also because massive supermarket chains can forecast a whole lot of food that they end up not needing and their suppliers are relatively powerless and have to prepare the food anyway. I am familiar with the Simple Savings website. I like the idea of the 21 dollar challenge - but am yet to attempt it.

    Have you, by any chance seen anything academic written about dumpster diving in NZ?

  3. Hi Isa
    My comment didn't publish :(.
    From memory, all the way back to yesterday, I also like the book Waste. Have you read anything of Sharon Astyk's? I've only read her blog posts - I was quite into reading her back when I spent more time thinking about peak oil and washing nappies, and less time flicking the tumble drier on and calculating how much clothing and food needs preparing to get us through the nmext day. But she does have a book called Depletion and Abundance, which seems promising given your comments. Greta to see you blogging again Isa!

  4. Hi Sandra, that sounds like a good source to look into. Here's a Google books peek:

    It's my bedtime now but I will check it out tomorrow and see what she has to say :)