'You are cordially invited to a free lunch for up to 5000 people' reads the headline on the website Feeding the 5000. On December 16th 2009, campaigners are going to turn several tonnes of ‘unwanted' fruit, vegetables and farm produce into a spectacular lunch of soup for passersby in London's Trafalgar Square. The aim is to highlight the unbelievable waste of food in affluent countries. We live in a society that has largely become disconnected from the land that sustains us and I believe that gardeners have a role to play in reversing this alarming trend.
Food waste has become big news over the past year. Back in July the UK's prime minister, Gordon Brown, urged people to stop wasting food as a government study revealed that 4 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year. Such figures are meaningless until converted into something more tangible – this is equivalent to 166kg (366lb) of food, costing around £420 ($700) for every household in the country being dumped every year. About 40% of this waste comes directly from houses (25% of the food that is bought by families is thrown away) but the remaining waste comes from retailers and food services. In the US the figures are even higher at 40 million tonnes of waste food per year – over twice as much per household.
Food security is becoming an international issue as several factors converge in the coming decades: increasing world population, climate change, oil supply and rising transportation costs to name but a few. However, there are already wider impacts of food waste. Nearly all food commodities are traded on global markets and, by the law of supply and demand, excessive demand by some countries increases prices of staple foods such as grain for poorer ones. The issues are more complex of course but whatever way you look at it food waste is not good and its impact can be seen in many of the challenges facing our world.
So why should gardeners be concerned about these issues? Surely growing your own food means that you are tapping into the most sustainable of food sources – your own organic fruit and vegetables? Gardeners are far more likely to be composting waste and recycling what they can, so, surely they do not need to be worrying about this?
My own experience is that gardening brings about an important mind-shift – a change in the way we relate to the food we eat. When you have sweated over your vegetable plot, tenderly raised plants, protecting them from adverse weather and pests, finally bringing them through to harvest, you cannot help but value the results. Since I started growing my own food several years ago I have become far less ‘picky' about the condition of the produce I cook with. I will peel wonky carrots, cut a bad bit out of a knobbly potato and happily accept blemished apples. It's not just my own harvest either – I don't insist on buying perfect vegetables and like to see interesting varieties in shops.
Could gardening therefore be the key to reducing food waste that government ministers are missing? I really believe it could. As well as being great for the environment, gardening changes attitudes. This is why here at GrowVeg.com we are so enthusiastic about the many organisations that are helping schools and communities gain first-hand experience of growing edible plants.
So, I welcome the publicity that the ‘Feeding of the 5000' will generate next week but I'd like to add something. As well as giving people a good lunch from unwanted vegetables, why not put a seed packet into their hand and get them experiencing the value of the earth we depend on? After all, lasting change doesn't just come from good headlines but from changes of attitude. Being encouraged to get their hands dirty might be just what people need to turn good slogans into practical action...