On a day like this, I am often guilty of the passive and somewhat meaningless action of a simple retweet on twitter. Perhaps the UN or Amnesty International have tweeted just what I am hoping to say myself. Wasting food is bad, people are suffering, don’t do it.
Today, when I saw that #WorldFoodDay was sat at the top of my UK trends on Twitter, it felt different. Not long ago I read a book entitled ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ written by William Kamkwamba, a Malawian innovator and engineer, who gained mass recognition, both in Malawi as well as internationally, when he built a wind turbine using scrapyard materials, powering various small electrical appliances in his rural village, just outside of Kasungu, in the north of Malawi. Though a beautiful, inspiring and ultimately happy story, my heart was left broken by it. For 15 years I lived in this country, one plagued by regular crisis’ that often hinder developing countries in Africa, famine being one. Yet, I was still ignorant to just how catastrophic a time it was.
Kamkwamba spoke in depth of the suffering that Malawi’s worst ever famine (in 2001), caused himself and those around him. Of going to bed hungry every night, of his pet dog starving to death after it finally got to the point where Kamkwamba couldn’t bring himself to share the one tiny portion of food he got a day.
As a resident of Lilongwe at the time, the capital city, it was a devastating time that affected the morale of all its citizens. However, it is not one I can truly pretend I am able to empathise with. I was not part of the population living below the poverty line, estimated to be at 50.7% in 2017, and I was not one of the seven million people on the brink of starvation in that 2001 food crisis’. I was part of a fortunate minority, that lived a blessed, privileged lifestyle. I like to think I never took this for granted.
When I moved to the UK in late 2011, many things shocked me. It stayed light until 10pm in the heights of summer and was dark by 5pm in the bitter winters. You could watch a four minute YouTube clip in, well, four minutes, as opposed to four hours. Freddo’s chocolate bars were considered the most reliable tool in measuring the rate of inflation.
But what shocked me most was the amount of waste I witnessed on a daily basis. Whether it be huge amounts of food being binned in my school cafeteria, of paint not used in the art rooms, or sheets of paper being handed out in the classrooms and offices. Needless to say, school set the tone for my adaption period. I could not believe how high the plates of my fellow students were loaded in the dinning hall, only for one third of the food to be thrown away thirty minutes later. Looking back, it was hardly that shocking, people would leave a few pieces of broccoli or not eat all of their mushy bread pudding, and instead bin it, hardly the controversy. However, for me, at a time in my life when I was facing such huge transition in lifestyle and culture, it seemed obvious not to waste food. It was not a thought much deeper than that, it was simply just engrained in me to not waste food.
To this day, it still make me uncomfortable when I notice someone else wasting food. However, I also notice how I have grown to check and live by ‘sell-by’ dates, by ‘consume within’ rules. I have become more and more wasteful because now that is becoming engrained in me, and whilst I am angry at myself for this, I understand that it is almost inevitable. When you can buy a Venti coffee at Starbucks for only 25p more than a size Grande, why wouldn’t you? The examples of marketing ploys to make us buy more than we need or even want are endless, as are the options, from meal deals, cheap fast food to frozen dinners.
Of course, a part of the difference is first world vs third world, and whilst the nearest McDonalds from my hometown is a rather inconvenient two hour flight away, there is no real shortage of both marketing schemes or cheap food deals. Africa cannot be depicted as some sort of weeping, starving victim, as emotive charity adverts are often guilty as portraying it to be. Africa is a vast continent with many fast-growing economies, and a huge amount of natural resources. But facts cannot be ignored, and even in times of beautiful abundance, perhaps a successful season of maize production (Malawi’s main crop) or many fruitful mango trees, the possibilities of droughts or heavy rainy seasons cannot properly be anticipated or prepared for. Malnutrition also rocks many African countries, turning the issue from quantity to quality. The climatic and economic challenges that African countries face are tough and never-ending, and ultimately, during my time in Malawi, the surrounding economic landscape subconsciously affected my levels of consumption.
Food waste is a huge problem worldwide, and one that cannot be solved just by making the generic ‘think of the kids in Africa’ argument to someone with a few uneaten chips on their plate. Perhaps it is by nurture and not nature, by culture and lifestyle, that our levels of consumption are constantly triggered and cheaply targeted. Excessive human consumption followed by thoughtless wastage may be a massive contributor, but the real problem is how habitual it now is for many of us. I know this from my unfortunate act of distancing myself from simple values I previously held in only 7 years.