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Remains of the beauty pageant

Book>>Waste Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart Penguin UK Indian price Rs 450

By Bharati Chaturvedi
Published: Tuesday 15 September 2009

imageBook>>Waste Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart Penguin UK Indian price Rs 450

Have you ever got under the skin of a potato? Tristram Stuart has, and emerged with an extraordinary tale in his engaging book Waste Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. With an artillery of facts and experience, he discusses the tragic global trend of wasting millions of tonnes of food every year.

Waste reveals Stuart as forager (of food and of data) par excellence, impassioned environmentalist, and corporate whistleblower, all in one. He shows, decisively, how wasting food has become institutionalized.

Supermarkets, which are important players in the food-eater interface, manipulate producers, suppliers and even customers to waste. Several stories here show how suppliers over-produce, so that they meet their demands to supermarkets, who could otherwise shift to other suppliers.What is not purchased is often prevented from being sold to anyone else. Sometimes, it is packed in the supermarket's own branded packaging, making it impossible to sell elsewhere.

Just as disturbing is the revelation of cosmetically beautiful food. Ugly potatoes--not the right shape or size--are discarded. Stuart serves up a terrifying description of a daily carrot beauty pageant. On a farm, sophisticated camera-based machinery visually examine each carrot for its perfect proportions. The out-of-shape individuals are fired at by a jet of air, and rejected. This would be absurd, even laughable if not for another fact--the total food thrown away in the US and Europe is "enough to feed the world's hungry between three to seven times over."

Those growing up before the 1990s might recall being chided to finish the food on their plates "Think of all the poor children who have nothing to eat." That line seems archaic, till Stuart puts it back onto our plates. The difference is, he's shifted the argument from a fuzzy moral one to a factual, planetary one. In fact, he goes a step ahead, prescribing helping one's self to less food in the first place.

Down to Earth  
Tonnes of food is wasted to get the right colour and shape for the superstore

But this is not so simple. What we eat matters and how we procure it matters too. Pulling out data from hundreds of sources (there are 47 pages of small print bibliography) Stuart delves into the matter of offal--brain and kidneys, the gurda-kapura kind of stuff-- that is going out of culinary fashion. So, large amounts of edible meat are dumped out of the human food chain. Not only is this a direct waste, it's also forcing the trashing of rich eco-systems, displaced to grow crops that often end up as feed.

Although Waste focuses on the UK, with glances at the US and nods to Japan, China, Pakistan and Central Asia, it still speaks to India. We are entering an urban economy where we are cut off from our food supplies, eat out often, chomp down way more meat than the last generation, and our sabjiwalas are replaced by Spencer type stores. Apart from our terrible storage systems that cause grains to rot, we might be wasting more food than we realize. Tristram explains how such waste can be reduced, and we would be wise to use some of these strategies to preempt becoming like the UK. A great example he details is the sound logic of feeding food waste to pig farms, if it is created in the first place. He is convincing when he explains that it's even better than putting it into a biogas plant. Waste laws in India don't allow that as yet.

Complex, cross-planetary linkages run across this book. Luckily, some solutions are within individual reach. Although Stuart doesn't overtly push the idea, his book is a powerful argument for vegetarianism. It also provokes the public to demand responsible supermarkets. This might serve as a shot in the arm to government, whose policy making is vital to waste reduction.

Grim as the spectre may be, Stuart never loses sight of the delight of eating good food. He is no preacher of dry bread and gruel. This is also a great strength of his book--we relate to his ideas not only from horror but also from the desire to truly eat well.

Bharati Chaturvedi heads Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group in Delhi, which works with the urban poor

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