Face Up to the Scandal of the Food We All Throw Away ; We Can Only Feed a Global Population of Ninebillion by 2050 If We Regard What We Eat as Precious Now

Article excerpt

IHAVE a guilty weekly ritual. Actually, I'd feel less guilty if it were as organised as that. Every few days, when the fridge gets too crowded, I go through it and discover the food that we forgot to eat. The salmon my son didn't have because he stayed over with his girlfriend; the healthy broccoli that no one could face on a wet February evening; the cream cakes bought for a tea where every visitor decided they were dieting that day. I throw this stuff away with deep unease, always intending to do better next week, knowing just how careless it is to be squandering the world's resources this way.

I always wish I knew someone I could pass the food to at the point I realise we're not going to be around to eat it. That's not our culture, though. We don't knock on one another's doors offering pots of cottage cheese or bags of salad which are about to wilt. Pride and embarrassment would get in the way. So I've always admired the freegan movement, where people scavenge for surplus food that retailers chuck out. It seems like a perfect, if small, contribution to a big problem; hungry people on the one hand and unwanted food on the other. What's more, its intention of preventing waste seems perfectly in line with the anxious spirit of our times.

It's interesting, then, to read about the case of 21-year-old Sacha Hall, who is facing trial for allegedly helping herself to food that had been thrown out and was awaiting disposal. Ms Hall lives in a flat above a Tesco Express in Essex and last January she apparently saw the store staff throwing away large quantities of chilled food following a power cut. She is accused of joining passers-by in helping herself to some of it, including pies, potato waffles and ham. Magistrates in Chelmsford, Essex heard that the store manager had seen Ms Hall handing the bags into her flat through her bedroom window.

The police were called and Hall was arrested, handcuffed, and charged with taking Pounds 215 worth of food, in a littleknown crime of "theft by finding", an offence with a maximum sentence of seven years.

The argument is that food is private property and it shouldn't be taken even if it is awaiting disposal. But is it correct to think of the ownership and use of what's farmed and grown as purely a private business? Over the past 60 years we in the West have grown used to a profusion of food and have been able to be profligate with it in a way that is unprecedented in human history. Now, though, the planet is running out of the capacity to feed its growing population in that extravagant fashion. Agricultural innovations can't keep pace with the birth rate, or with the changing consumption of the middle classes in China, India or Africa.

Current estimates suggest that the population will be at least nine billion by 2050, a rise of more than two billion from today. Feeding that number will require 900million extra hectares of land to be turned into farmland. But the world doesn't have that much potential agricultural land available. Columbia University's Earth Institute calculates that at most we might be able to add another 100 million to the 4. …