A brief history of food waste

BY Eleanor Barnett

14th Mar 2024 Lifestyle

4 min read

A brief history of food waste
Food historian Eleanor Barnett takes a look at the history of food waste and why we urgently need to change in this extract from her new book, Leftovers
Lying in bed, the new Lord Mayor of London, John Key, is attacked by a horde of furious animals. A giant frog, loin-cloth covering its modesty, wields a sharp spear which has already been used to pierce the pink bodies of three smaller frogs as if on a spit. Spurred on by a gang of squawking poultry, a lobster pinches the man’s nose with its massive claw, as a hefty sea turtle compresses his chest. Eyes clenched in pain and panic, the Lord Mayor desperately fires two bottles of bubbly—"Wrights Cham[pagne]"—into the throng of his nightmare, as if they were pistols.
This fantastical image comes from a satirical lithograph of 1830, created in response to the last-minute cancellation of the great banquet which had been planned to inaugurate John Key into his mayoral office. In the image, a list resting on the bedside table informs us of some of the delectable dishes that had been prepared for the feast: "Roast beef & à la mode", "Veal and Mutton", "Pork and Venison", "Pheasants & Pigeons", "Lobster & Sturgeon", "Turkey and Capon", "Frogs à la Crapodine", "Shrimps in Pots", to name but a few. Meanwhile, the huge turtle reminds viewers of turtle soup, then the most prestigious of dishes which required live green sea turtles, reportedly weighing up to 600–700 pounds each, to be imported into Britain all the way from the West Indies. The artist imagined all these creatures, their lives needlessly squandered for a banquet that never happened, returning to haunt the Lord Mayor’s dreams.
"Wasting food has long been a morally charged issue"
As the Lord Mayor’s Nightmare tells us, wasting food has long been a morally charged issue. The living things, whether sentient or vegetative, that become our food are created by the laborious processes of cultivating, tending, nursing, fattening, pruning,  feeding, watering, slaughtering or harvesting. In the journey from farm to fork, they consume a portion of the world’s finite resources. It takes 50 litres of water to produce one orange, for example. And while a kilo of wheat requires 500–4,000 litres, a kilo of meat gobbles up 5,000–100,000 litres of water. Today, fertilisers and pesticides are also spread generously on our food crops, which are grown on land requisitioned from nature using gas-guzzling machinery. To feed the animals whose meat and dairy products we simply throw away in UK and US households, plus that expelled from retail and food services in the US, we use up 8.3 million hectares of agricultural land. Growing soybeans, which become meal to feed these animals, is a leading cause of deforestation, especially in the Amazon. This is to say nothing of the time, labour, and skill needed to gather and transform these raw ingredients into meals. Wasting food means wasting life, but also the huge amounts of energy and resources that go into making it.
A satirical lithograph of the Lord Mayor John Key, 1830. British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
What’s more, wasting food is only a possibility if you have plenty of it. Most Londoners could only dream of the abundance of meats, pies, soups, tarts, salads, cakes, fruits and sweets that would have been prepared for the Lord Mayor’s banquet of 1830, had it occurred. Likewise, as an ungrateful child forced to swallow down those last few forkfuls of peas, I, like doubtless many others, remember that textbook parental admonishment: "There are children dying in poorer countries who would kill for this food." Today, food wasted is sustenance that could otherwise go into the mouths of the 842 million people across the world afflicted with chronic hunger. Wasting food means wasting the money that was spent buying it, money that would certainly be of use in other hands. In 1830, one subject angrily wrote an open letter to William IV, whose customary appearance at the Lord Mayor’s banquet had been cancelled at the last minute, condemning the fact that the king did not "once check the pompous propensity to profligacy in the expenditure of the citizens’ money". In the present day, food worth $1 trillion a year is wasted globally, while in Britain each of our households will waste on average around £500 a year needlessly on entirely edible food ("avoidable food waste", meaning food or drink that was edible at some point before it was thrown away), costing us £13.8 billion on a national scale.
"In the present day, food worth $1 trillion a year is wasted globally"
Over the last half-century food waste has garnered increasing public attention as we’ve gradually come to terms with the extent and urgency of man-made climate change. Perhaps you are already aware of the shocking statistic: across the world, a third of all the food we produce is wasted. Left to rot and decompose, if all the food waste in the world was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. Meanwhile, in its creation, all this wasted food guzzles up 25 per cent of the world’s fresh water and 10 per cent of global energy consumption in total, while the area of land needed to grow it is the size of China. In the UK, this means over 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted at home every year alone, the same CO2 equivalent as 4.6 million return flights from London to Perth. Unsurprisingly, reducing food waste is an important part of the global fight to lessen the devastating impacts of climate change. There is little time left for the United Nations to reach its target—set in 2015—of reducing food waste by 50 per cent across the world by 2030.
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.