What is in the trash bin? Saving exotic foods

Large amounts of exotic foods are thrown away, together with all the energy used to produce them, pack them, transport them etc. Minimizing waste while opting for local, seasonal, organic, plant-based foods may cool down our environmental impact.

This exotic food was saved from the dumpster

Pears from United States, plums from South Africa and frozen meat from Australia;  have a look at the place of origin of your staple foods the next time you are shopping and you will be amazed of how much food comes from the other side of the world.

It might seem nice to get exotic groceries, but does it really make sense? This is actually a manifestation of how the rule of the capital and cheap transports leads to some absurd results.

We import what we produce – we send what they already have

Europe produces more than enough food to feed its population and then some. In fact the EU farming subsidies pay farmers ample money to overproduce and just throw away much of it. Anyone who has ever dumpster-dived knows how much fresh produce is thrown away on a daily basis by the supermarkets. Yet, we keep running vessels back and forth across the oceans with stuff that we already have ourselves.

The consequence is, of course, massive burning of transport fuels and pollution. Food transport accounts by itself for a few percent of total emissions of CO2 in the world. For instance, the food sector as a whole accounts for 10 % of the total oil consumption in the U.S [1]. Some estimates give an average of 1,300 miles for every dinner (meaning the distance the ingredients have travelled on average) [2]. These are the so-called ‘food miles’.

Does the global marketplace encourage efficiency?

The extend of these food miles is staggering, especially when you consider that we evolved as a species relying on hunting and gathering for food only in the immediate environment of our local area. Imagine someone who does not know anything about the economic system standing on another planet looking down at the Earth and seeing all those freighters roaming the seas and the air. Wouldn’t they ask themselves “Why do those humans choose to send things that they already have?”

Is that called “efficiency”? This is the recurring argument of the proponents of corporate-based, conventional development that we are called to refute. It is always in the interest of the leader, the privileged and the winner to provide arguments and defend her power – even if the whole world is evidently collapsing.

The ‘food miles’ issue exposes all the typical flaws in the system: overpopulation, reliance of fossil fuels and inadequate pricing mechanisms. It also showcases that the global marketplace does not really allocate the production of goods where it is more advantageous; it is primarily a tool for the concentration of wealth to few corporations.

It will not change unless we, as consumers, start choosing more locally produced goods or the politicians give oil less subsidies and a fairer price. Unfortunately the current trends do not seem to support this possibility.

Is a local meat less energy intensive than tomatoes from Africa?

However, concerning our food choices, we also need to consider the energy used in the whole lifecycle of a given foodstuff; food miles are only one parameter.

For example, meat and dairy products are much more energy-intensive. Greenhouses with forced heating, the use of diesel-fuelled tractors and chemical fertilizers (they are mostly fuel-based) which are all involved in modern Western agriculture, make the carbon footprint of local vegetables sometimes larger than imported ones from countries like Ghana (there is more hand labour, vegetables grow in open fields etc.).

Moreover, there are organic cooperatives in developing countries that contribute to local development and those should be the last to eliminate from our exotic food table. In order to be sure, we need to check the ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ labels (there are even more advanced concepts like ‘PICO’) whenever we choose to buy some exotic stuff (coffee indeed:) [3,4].

Don’t look up, start preparing from below

Indeed, most of the air-freighted food is unnecessary while causing significant environmental damage: most of this food comes from large plantations for the export market where industrial monocultures dominate. Farmers, or better ‘farm workers’, just get a tiny fraction of the revenues – only the ‘crumbles of the pie’ – but there are some exceptions to this rule. Therefore is a need for us to know more about the way our food is produced.

Choosing not only local, but also seasonal, organic vegetables might be a more holistic option. Nonetheless, as a dumpster diver it is very sad to find large amounts of edible stuff from another continent. This means that land and resources have been used to harvest and transport it across the world just to be displayed and then tossed. Isn’t this a sad way to use the (diminishing) natural resources that are still available?

Gleaner and Freegas


[1]Chefurka P (2007). Population-elephant in the room. Retrieved on the 21st of February 2012 from: http://www.paulchefurka.ca/Population.html

[2] Center for Environmental Education (2008). “Food miles” are one way food affects the environment. Retrieved on the 21st of February 2012 from: http://www.ceeonline.org/greenGuide/food/upload/environmenthealth.aspx

[3] Macalister T (2008). Co-op clashes with organic group over CO2 and food miles. Retrieved on the 21st of February 2012 from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/22/carbonemissions.carbonfootprints

[4] Soil Association (2007). Soil Association- Organic and air freight, are they compatible? Retrieved on the 21st of February 2012 from: http://www.naturalchoices.co.uk/Soil-Association-Organic-and-air?id_mot=7


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