Why do we waste so much food?
While minding my own business yesterday I received an unexpected call asking me to appear on The Today Programme to discuss the psychological underpinnings of why we waste so much food. They chose me with my Social Brain hat on, because they wanted to explore wider issues relating to people acting against their own self-interest and the nature of irrationality.
This is my fourth time on the show, and in my experience, the off air conversation with the producer- who is basically checking you out- is invariably much deeper and longer than the conversation with the presenter. When the programme says there will be five minutes, that usually means 1 minute for the presenter, 2 for the other guest(in this case, Angie Hobbs) and 2 minutes to say what you can about the subject, in the context of the questions and answers already given.
(image via ecofoodrecycling.co.uk)
The snippet is here, at about 8.55am, squeezed into the end of the show, and you can judge for yourself whether they were minutes well spent (or indeed whether such an important discussion might have been more worthy of minutes than some of the items earlier in the show).
My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity, and for most of us, things like water, food and energy do not feel scarce, even though, taken globally, they are. In so far as there is a solution, it may lie in simulating the experience of scarcity. I do this incidentally once a year when I visit my in-laws in India, where I learn to live with water shortages and power cuts, even in a relatively developed and affluent part of one of their main cities, Bangalore.
My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity
Now that I have a little more time than I did on air, here are some of the things that weren’t mentioned.
- The report itself, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Global Food: Waste Not, Want not is excellent and well worth a read.
- The problem is global, multifaceted and systemic. It’s not just about the behaviour of people in the developed world, or indeed supermarket offers. The problem includes regulation, the storage and transport of food, irregular harvests, and much else besides.
- The headlines said we waste half our food, but that’s a bit overblown. In the report they say the estimate is that we waste between 30-50% of our food.
- When Evan Davis told his bear story, I wish I had said: “Humans are animals, but we are not bears, and unlike bears we have a moral responsibility towards the rest of our species and the planet as a whole.”
Spending money on sales is still spending, not saving.
- There are lots of behavioural/psychological issues that are important, including:
- Spending money on sales is still spending, not saving.
- Anticipated regret- the tendency to do something now in case we regret not having had done it at a future point – is relevant in three ways; 1) We want to stockpile food in case we run out 2)We want to buy the sale items in case we don’t get another such offer 3)We trust the sell-buy date more than our own senses.
- Is there a place for smaller shopping trolleys? Given the evidence that we tend to eat and buy less/more depending on the size of the recepticle, it seems intuitive that we might buy and waste less if we had smaller spaces to fill.
- There are many more dimensions to this problem, and an excellent overview, including a detailed breakdown of the reasons we waste food can be found (in a table!) here:
- A small but particularly painful part of the problem is that we don’t seem to know what to do with our food items, or our leftovers so…
- Should we placed renewed educational emphasis on home economics?
- Sounds absurd given the scale of the challenge?
- Then what should we do?
- Where should we start?