Waste not, want not! I'm sure you heard this injunction from your mother. In my time, it was coupled with a reference to starving children in China, making me wonder how leaving cabbage on my plate could possibly make their plight any worse. But my mother was right – she knew where the food came from and how vulnerable our supply was at that time, leading to rationing. The cabbages my grandmother grew were a precious addition to our diets and she did not want them wasted.
I chose to write about waste today because I heard it used last week on the Today
programme in relation to the accumulation of food in freezers. It appears that many middle-class people, including the presenters of the programme, periodically explore their freezers, find food which has lain there for years, and throw it out. Some participants in the discussion came up with the bright idea that it could be eaten and save a week's shopping bill! It seemed a novel idea to them. The discussion might have gone on to a consideration of food waste, but it didn't. Waste is what remains when your needs have been satisfied, when you have had enough. The word, derived from Old French, has been around since before Chaucer's time.
My mother's remarks drew attention to the interconnectedness of world food supply and its interruption at the time by the U-boat blockade. But to our great good fortune, the war ended without the expected invasion and as time passed trade increased, air transport converted to carrying goods rather than bombs, and food supplies became ever more varied, abundant and relatively cheap. Now, few remember the hard times and most people see this as the natural way of things, something we expect to continue indefinitely. Alas, we are quite suddenly realising that it is not, and now there is real food poverty in Scotland with food banks being overwhelmed.
A central problem drawn to our attention by climate change is limitation of availability of the energy (in kilocalories) and protein (in grams) provided by the three Fs: food, fertiliser and fuel. Go back 200 years, and these were all obtained locally. Farmers around Edinburgh and other cities grew the crops and reared the livestock, obtaining their fertiliser from their own animals and from human excrement collected along the Royal Mile, including no doubt some very high class faeces, via the gardyloo service. Their and our heat energy originally came from wood, charcoal or local coal, but the economy was by and large circular. We bought all we needed from the local shops and recycled our clothes. But change was already underway thanks to Adam Smith and James Watt.
Now, in contrast, we may drive to the supermarket and be confronted by a huge selection of things to buy, derived from anywhere – electronics from China, coffee from Zambia, fruit from Chile, blouses from India. If we are looking for something specific, say Marmite which is always hard to find, we'll pass shelves of hundreds of items that we don't need but are designed to attract our attention. We may well buy some of them. The surplus food may go into the freezer, the clothes into an already well-stocked wardrobe.
We have become the throw-away generation, and it has happened in my lifetime. But while most of us enjoy this choice, the increasing numbers of poor have a choice limited to cheap un-nourishing, high salt and sugar foods which shorten their lives and cause obesity, diabetes, heart attack and stroke. As the better off throw away food, the poor increasingly rely on food banks and other charity, a microcosm in our cities of the worldwide issue of maldistribution.
It is so simple and obvious, but we ignored it for 200 years – the waste doesn't disappear, it recycles itself. The waste gas carbon dioxide from combustion forms a blanket in the atmosphere, raises the temperature and acidifies the oceans. Methane released by mining and agriculture adds an eiderdown. Thrown-away materials decay in landfill, producing more methane, or pollute the sea and disturb its ecology. As a consequence, unnoticed by most, people and animals, trees and crops, even whole species, die.
The harnessing of capital and free worldwide trade brought immense benefits to most of humanity but the waste and its harmful effects on the planet's ecology went unaccounted for until now. The two great costs, for which we must somehow pay and make retribution, have been and are exploitation of the labour of the poor by slavery and servitude, and the accumulation of waste. These are the unaccounted-for costs of our prosperity.
Last week, the UK Government revealed its plans for dealing with this. It is apparent that it has not understood the seriousness of the problems we face. While research on carbon capture has distant potential, in the short term it is a sop to the oil and gas industries, as they hope they may be able to take part in sequestering CO2 in their wells, squeezing out more fossil fuels as they do so. It is now emphatically too late for this to save us. We must simply stop getting more oil and gas out and switch within the next decade to renewables and nuclear. Crucially, this requires a sharp drop in our use of energy.
In the short term, the required amount of renewable energy and hydrogen gas is unlikely to be sufficient to meet our present demands – we all need to reduce these demands as much as we can. We must reduce our energy needs both in what we eat and what we burn to keep us warm and mobile. If we can't do this, we can hardly expect governments to do it on our behalf.
Close to a quarter of the world's carbon footprint comes from the production of food, both plant and animal. Different foods have very different footprints, so a simple way of reducing your own footprint further is by changing your diet. Cows, sheep and farmed crustaceans come top, producing between 10 and 25kg CO2 equivalent per 50g protein provided. They are followed closely by pigs, chickens and farmed fish (3-5kg/50g), then dairy products (3-4kg per/50kg). The lowest of all are soya, nuts and pulses (0.5-1kg/50g). By contrast, vegetable carbohydrates all produce less than 1kg/1,000kcal save rice which currently produces 1.2 kg/1,000kcal.
For open water fish, the carbon cost comes from catching, freezing and transport, so local sustainable fisheries should be supported and fish should be looked on as a treat rather than a major protein source. Full details of all this is in Mike Berners-Lee's book, There is no Planet B
, which I again recommend to anyone who is concerned about the climate and wants to help. And to help the planet is to help yourself and your family become more resilient to the problems ahead.
Reducing the meat in your diet proves easier that I thought it would be, and there are plenty of tasty vegetarian foods available once you start to look. Try veggie haggis or sausages. The other easy things are to avoid buying food (and stuff generally) that you don't really need, and only cook what you really want to eat. Compost all peelings. Vegetables are best bought in the quantities you need for the week, unpackaged if possible. Offers of several for a discount are money wasted if you don't eat them all. Use-by dates do not mean that they are inedible and are an important cause of food waste. And make my ELF (everything left in the fridge) soup at the end of the week for next week's lunches.
You may have noticed that I have been focusing on the contribution of food to climate change during a period when at least two major religions encourage fasting and when many in Britain for whatever reason tend to reduce their consumption. Lent ends this week and this is often marked by a reaction towards over-indulgence (chocolate is good, but only as a treat).
My belief is that those of you who read Scottish Review
are good people, concerned about the direction the world is heading and keen to do what you can to help. Ideally, we would like our two governments to grasp the nettle but, until we have elections with candidates who really understand the issues for us to vote for, all we can do is set an example and encourage our friends and families to do so also.
Both my wife's and my own mother were born in the first decade of the 20th century, lost their own mothers in early childhood during the 1919 pandemic, and lived through two World Wars. They knew what they were talking about when they said: 'Waste not, want not'.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own