Recently, America readers enjoyed a great online article by Joseph McAuley (“Some Food for Thought,” May 28) about the scandal of food waste. And as I write this column all the talk is of “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical on protecting the environment. Even before its formal launch, it had already instigated a great deal of interest and controversy. The two substantive issues of food production and ecology are deeply connected. Each concerns how natural resources—in the Christian tradition, given to us for stewardship and care—are misused. When they are thus distorted, it is not only creation that suffers but people, almost always the poorest.
Some of the statistics on food waste are shocking and scandalous. Globally we waste or otherwise lose around one-third of the world’s total food production, amounting to around 1.3 billion tons each year. Here in Europe, we waste about 100 million tons annually. A report in 2013 showed that households in the United Kingdom throw out what amounts to 24 meals per month and discard the equivalent of 86 million chickens every year. Great Britain’s households toss out seven million tons of food and drink a year; in fact more than half of this lost food could have been eaten, according to antiwaste advocates at Love Food, Hate Waste.
Overall, industrialized nations waste more food than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa produces. Yet hunger persists; you can find it in your back yard and around the world. Austerity policies here in Britain have led to a shocking rise in the number of food banks—and people who need them—while in the global south almost a billion people still go hungry daily. To state the obvious, something is not right with this system.
An unreflective glance at such statistics might suggest overproduction is to blame for wastage, but there are at least three components involved in wasting food. First, at production crops are abandoned in the field, owing to, for example, their poor appearance. Next, food resources can be damaged and lost during distribution at local, national and global levels. And finally, there is household wastage from preparing too much food per meal or allowing food to spoil, usually fruits and vegetables. All three elements produce this scandal of waste.
Your correspondent can add a personal anecdote; seeing a supermarket employee hastily emptying shelves of breadrolls that were one day out of date according to the label, I asked to buy a pack, to save wasting them, because my Jesuit community would consume them that day. Before she could answer, her manager rushed over and intervened. Company policy, I was told, dictated that all those packs (I guessed at least 200 packs of six) could not be sold and had to go straight to disposal.
As far back as 1967, Blessed Paul VI’s great encyclical, “Populorum Progressio,” noted that the “hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance” and said that the church is “cut to the quick by this cry.” Pope Paul VI proposed three major duties rooted in our common humanity: mutual solidarity, social justice and universal charity. What might these duties look like brought to bear on the contemporary disgrace of food waste?
More recently, Pope Francis, at the Mass to open the Caritas Internationalis Conference, took as his homily theme his phrase “to prepare the table for all,” which is our shared mission, honing his 2013 assertion that “throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry.”
Could we, as we examine our consciences about how we waste energy, do the same for our food purchasing? Could this waste, like all sin, be rooted in selfishness, the refusal to serve and a denial of the common good?
Pope Francis has contrasted the “paradox of abundance” with this “culture of waste.” Can we challenge retailers to sell us our food on the basis of usefulness rather than tricking us into buying too much with sales too hard to resist? Must we continue to accept the unchallenged supremacy of the market?
In France, a remarkable new law forbids supermarkets from throwing out unsold food as waste. In Britain, several online movements are trying to whip up interest in a similar initiative. It is surely time for Christians everywhere to speak out, as, encouraged by Francis, we learn that it’s our duty.