Food waste

Recently reading a report about a survey done by Tesco into food waste (see Guardian article), it struck me that there are some very simple, undemanding and everyday applications of the Middle Way here. According to this report, two-thirds of bagged salads and half of bakery items are wasted, thrown away either by supermarkets or by consumers.

Obviously there are lots of possible issues contributing to food waste: around supermarket selling policies, wider attitudes to food, consumerism and where we shop. But let’s set thoseSupermarket_Interior webkid aside for the moment and just focus on the choices of the shopper in the supermarket. Let’s think about what happens when we pick up a food item off the shelves.

One of the key points of Middle Way Philosophy is the recognition that we are not single selves, and that our egoistic identifications with present desires need integrating with our identifications at other times. Leaving aside whether we can apply this to long-term issues like pensions or nuclear waste, and even leaving aside identification with the ecosystem or with distant people on other continents, a more immediate question is – can you plan your consumption of food for the next week? If people can’t even do that, their chances of larger-scale integration seem to be limited.

Each time you put a new item in the shopping trolley, an act of imagination is required, linking your desires at different times. There is desire for that item now, yes, but will there be a desire for that item tomorrow, or in a week’s time? Will there be sufficient demand for that item, competing with other available items and limited hunger, within the time before the food goes off? Your theory that the item will be needed may seem OK considered in isolation, but it needs scrutiny in the light of the evidence and comparison with other theories – like the theories that several other items you’ve already bought will be needed at the same time. Attachment to a particular fixed idea of what you need or don’t need, regardless of the changing conditions (perhaps linked to other fixed ideas about the ourselves and the world) is an example of metaphysics. To overcome such rigid views, it’s not just planning and moral awareness that’s required (though that may help) but also the ability to imaginatively put yourself in  slightly different situation for long enough to care about it.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why many people don’t go through this reflective process when shopping. One may be that they are under time pressure and don’t want to spend time dawdling around the supermarket thinking. That’s understandable, but means that we’ll have to establish rules of thumb for quick reference instead. For example ‘never buy more than one bagged salad’ sounds like a pretty obvious one to start with. Perhaps after one relatively slow and reflective turn around the supermarket, we can establish better habits that we then replicate more quickly on other occasions.

Anyway, better stop now – I’m off to the supermarket.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Food waste

  1. There was a wartime slogan, ‘Waste not, want not’ A challenge I haven’t forgotten. We were healthy, in spite of rationing! Oranges for example, were a treat, my mother would queue to buy just a few.

    1. My guess is that in the wartime situation there was a powerful desire to have enough to eat, and if we were placed in danger of not being able to meet our basic desire for food in that way again we would quickly change our habits to make full use of all we had. When there are powerful physical needs at work, our lack of integration becomes less evident, as we are forced to mobilise all our resources.

  2. An important topic. Food and how we use it and grow it has widespread ramifications to our health, the health of the planet… there is food justice, food safety, food conflict. It touches upon the very most personal and the utmost global at the same time.

    And food seems to bring out the metaphysical genie in most people. Making any suggestion or claim about food is amazingly emotionally charged for so many people. I read a lot about health and diet and I have to say that it is in that arena I have come across the most deeply entrenched dogmatic people I have ever encountered, beating out football fans, youth party leaders and religious enthusiasts by quite a wide margin.

    And the contradictions… Fat is bad! Fat is good! Eat more fruit! Fruit is just sugar! The science, at least how it trickles down through the media, seems to be conflicting.

    I just read a funny blog about how, when it comes to health and diet, people would do well to be a lot less dogmatic and a lot more middle way philosophical about it: http://180degreehealth.com/2013/10/bad

    1. Hi Robert, I’m sure you are correct, when there is very little choice of food , the decision making, whether to buy it or not, is certainly tempered by the fact that you could go hungry, if it isn’t in your shopping basket.
      We still see suffering, due to hunger and yet there are others in the world, who are in danger of dying because of over eating. There is a middle way, food equally shared? I can imagine it is logistically extremely difficult to manage, but not impossible surely, with sufficient political will?
      To hear that food banks are increasingly needed here, must say something about how the country is run. Our situation is social poverty, we have safety nets, while people totally without food can be described as in biological poverty.
      Hi Emilie, I see how food, as a focus for discussion, can be emotionally charged more than other subjects. In Britain, television schedules are peppered with cooking programmes, books and articles on diets are big business, as are gyms. I have never been tempted to diet, do the ever work? As Epicurus might say, too little is harmful, but so is too much.

      1. Norma, Swedish TV is also absolutely saturated with cooking shows and celebrity chefs! At the same time, the number of families who sit together at a table and eat seems to be decreasing all the time…

        I think all diets work, short- term, but almost none work long- term. Probably because obesity is very poorly understood medically and psychologically. I have experience trying to lose weight, but I have come to the conclusion that Intuitive eating is the best approach for me, rather than following any of the fad diets or gurus.

        I am happy to see some practical suggestions for practising Middle Way in ways that can improve life on an individual and global level.

  3. Hi Emilie, I agree, diets and food are tricky issues to talk about for many, doctors and dieticians make an effort to educate, ‘five a day’ is a good guide, but then adverts for food pop up on tv to tempt us. To criticise the over weight would not be helpful, I think you may agree, as there are so many factors to be considered when talking about weight issues. We know that processed food contains too much fat, salt and sugar, but it is so easy now to make a meal in minutes, a real boon for some unfortunately, these ready made meals must be popular, even although they are more expensive than making our own, you just have to look at the freezer cabinets in super markets to see the shelves laden with them. People may over- eat comfort food when stressed, for many of those on low incomes, fruit in particular, can be expensive, then there are genetic factors, differing metabolisms, psychological problems, the list is endless.
    I do enjoy food and cooking for the family occasionally, is still a great pleasure. I like to make bread sometimes, the process is very therapeutic.
    A middle way course of action would be the best!

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