A Little Scarcity Is Good for Us
Affluent societies produce a lot of waste.
Food waste, clothes worn once and discarded, strong chemicals applied instead of elbow grease, widgets purchased and thrown away.
Those who grow up in affluent societies, born to middle- and upper-class families, often do not know any better. They see waste all around them, and it becomes the norm.
As economies around the world have slowed to a crawl amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, those who have never experienced scarcity get to know how it feels.
Rich, poor and middle-class alike see empty supermarket shelves and toilet paper madness. For the first time in many people’s lives, they see the “1 per customer limit” notices and learn about ingredient substitution.
While some of the shortages are temporary, driven by irrational behavior and sudden quarantine announcements, other shortages will be for real.
For many privileged citizens, it is the first time in their lives when they can’t have their favorite exotic fruit or the right brand of rustic whole-grain sprouted sourdough.
This may be a good time to do a reality check on expectations and entitlements. It may be time to learn the scarcity lesson, which people in less fortunate countries are living every day.
Let’s focus on food here. Yes, it’s possible that food production may be affected by border closures and supply chain breakdowns. But does this necessarily mean food shortages? Or will scarcity teach us to be smarter, more efficient, and less wasteful?
Rich countries waste a lot of food.
Second Harvest, a Canadian agency that works to reduce food waste, reports that 58 percent of all food produced in Canada — 35.5 million tonnes — is lost or wasted.
Two-thirds of it is lost during the processing and manufacturing process, and a whopping third — at the consumer level.
“The abundance of food we produce has led us to dismiss its intrinsic value.” — Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste is estimated at 30–40 percent of the food supply. This includes 31 percent of food loss at the retail and consumer levels.
The World Resources Institute determined that, by weight, around a third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.
“Food loss and waste generates more than four times as much annual greenhouse gas emissions as aviation and is comparable to emissions from road transport.” — The World Resources Institute
And the European Commission states that in the EU, an estimated 20% of total food produced is lost or wasted, with households generating more than half of the total food waste.
Affluence is a bad teacher.
When an average household can afford to waste half of the food purchased or leave half of their uneaten oversized restaurant meal on a plate, whole generations learn that wastefulness is acceptable. Being able to afford waste is associated with success, and our society needs a dramatic wake-up call.
It is time to listen to a new teacher — scarcity.
While economies around the world struggle to stay afloat, and while farmers and food producers try to adapt to supply chain disruptions, we must evaluate our expectations and entitlements.
“We, the people, do have the power to stop the tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food.” — Tristram Stuart
We, consumers, must change our habits.
A typical household wastes food due to poor planning, over-preparing and discarding leftovers, misjudged food needs, and improper storage. This must change. People who can train AI, win political battles, and climb corporate ladders should be able to change their habits around the unnecessary waste.
Just respect the food and the labor that helped put the food on our tables. Prepare with care, plan the meals, use leftovers. Be less picky. Carbohydrates and proteins come in many shapes and forms, and the food we prepare ourselves is healthier, even if it tastes simpler than what you used to get from a takeout place. And if you order from a takeout or a restaurant, be mindful of the portion size.
Here are some practical ideas based on advice from FoodPrint, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and education on food production practices:
1. Store the food properly to avoid spoilage, and don’t buy more than you can consume and store. If you purchased too much when the panic hit, consider giving the excess to a local food bank.
2. Don’t cook in large quantities, unless you are planning to freeze or share the meal. Sometimes food gets thrown away not because it spoils, but because nobody wanted to eat zucchini for four days in a row.
3. Use common sense with date labels on food. The “sell by,” “best if used by,” “expires by” date labels are not regulated and often relate to “peak quality”, not food safety.
4. Plan your meals, then shop for your meal plan and buy only what you need. Avoid unplanned takeouts or deliveries when you have plenty of food in your fridge.
5. Avoid impulse buying on sale. Unless you have a system for preserving, canning, or freezing the excess, you will end up wasting both money and food.
We are our children’s role models, now more than ever
While we’re all stuck at home during the lockdown, our children are watching our behavior. And they learn by what we do, not by what we say.
This means that we must change our mindset. We must change our habits and be visible about it. If we promote the idea of cooking sustainably and reducing food waste, this mindset will take root. Our children’s generation would learn not to waste — not out of necessity, but because it’s the responsible thing to do.
Let’s use this time to start living simpler; to waste less; to want less. Let’s discard the “I can afford to be wasteful” thinking. Let’s waste less, because it’s the right thing to do.
Then, after the worst is over, if we stick to the same mindset, we may be able to save more or retire earlier.
We can learn that living on less without feeling deprived is possible — when we waste less.