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It Sticks in the Throat

Disclaimer: this post concerns the organisers of next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference. At the beginning of July, I noticed that they were beginning work on a food magazine and contacted them about writing for it. We had a brief, yet friendly, correspondence which ended when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to afford the R1500 (about £150) ticket for the Festival. (I see that they’re now selling day tickets to the exhibition and market for R50 each, which is excellent.) So please believe me when I say that this post isn’t a case of sour grapes. Also, it contains some swearing.

This week’s post was supposed to be about food, eating, and ideas around ‘authenticity’ – inspired by an article from Prospect about the end of postmodernism – but I find myself suddenly enraged and can’t think about anything else. This month’s Woolworth’s Taste magazine comes with a free copy of Menu: a publication which accompanies next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference in central Cape Town.

Menu lists Cape Town’s 167 best dishes, and includes short essays on a range of subjects: interviews with local restaurateurs, aspects of southern African cuisine, and the inevitable peon to Elizabeth David. It begins relatively uncontroversially with the usual range of comments of shopping malls having killed our ‘food culture’ and the need to encourage an interest in local cuisines. I’m annoyed by the ignorant, rose-tinted view of the past which informs this kind of thinking, but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about a desire to improve the way people eat. No, my problem is with this:

This issue of Menu magazine compiles some of the best food experiences in the city. The visuals show food dropped on floors at home and in the street, because the best pizza always lands on the floor.

Yes, I know: ‘the best pizza always lands on the floor.’

I’ll wait while you compose yourself.

And so each of the photographs in the magazine depicts food – blobs of ice cream, crisps, bread, salad, and barbequed chicken – dropped on the ground in Cape Town.

A magazine dedicated to promoting the best restaurants in Cape Town, to disseminating information about food in South Africa, and, presumably, to encouraging its readers to eat better – a magazine produced in the midst of a global food crisis where people are starving to death and overthrowing their governments because of a lack of food – includes photographs of wasted food.

This magazine draws attention to the fact that it wasted food in order to create pretty pictures. Seriously?

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MINDS? How was this ever supposed to be a good idea?

Aside from the pretentiousness of the writing and the silliness of the concept, it’s absolutely appalling to promote an awareness of eating good food by throwing it away. I do realise (and hope) that relatively small amounts of food were wasted during the photo shoots, but this isn’t really the point. The magazine seems to suggest that there’s something poetic – or, rather, given its overriding aesthetic, hip – to waste food.

Did you know that we waste a third of our food supply? According to a report published in May by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of the world’s food – food produced for human consumption and which is perfectly good to eat – is wasted or lost. In poor nations, this waste is usually the result of poor infrastructure, where inadequate storage, processing, or packaging facilities fail to keep food fresh and uncontaminated. But in wealthy countries, food waste – and industrialised and developing nations waste roughly the same amount of food (about 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively) – is produced by ordinary people.

The average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year, most of it fruit and vegetables. In sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia – the least developed parts of the world, in others words – this amounts to an average of only 6-11kg of food. People who are poor tend to buy less food and will ensure that they throw away as little of it as possible.

And the proportion of food wasted by Westerners has only increased over the past few decades. Tristram Stuart writes in Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009):

A survey in Britain during the 1930s found that household food waste comprised only 2-3 per cent of the calorific value of food that entered the home. In 1976 waste was apparently only 4-6 per cent, and similar studies in America during the 1960s and 70s found wastage levels of about 7 per cent.

We are now at a stage where rich countries waste 222 million tonnes of food per year – which is only slightly less than the annual food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

At a time when demand for food is only increasing, it’s ludicrous that so much food goes to waste. As the FAO’s report notes, one of the most effective ways of reducing

tensions between the necessary increase in consumption [of food] and the challenging increase in production, is to also promote food loss reduction which alone has a considerable potential to increase the efficiency of the whole food chain. In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.

So what are the implications of throwing away so much food? It means that the limited amount of land available for agriculture is being exploited needlessly. It means that the greenhouse gasses emitted during the production, processing, and transportation of food are done so in vain.

We know that hunger and starvation are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but, rather, by people’s inability to access it. Drought – increasingly the product of climate change – and food speculation all cause the price of food to increase. Wasting food also contributes to this. As a recent study suggests, there is a strong link between this year’s increased incidence in political violence in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and high food prices.

The FAO makes a number of suggestions of how we can reduce waste, and one of them is encouraging Westerners and members of the middle classes in developing nations not to waste food.

These are people who can afford to throw food away. And these are the people who read Menu magazine. The problem with including a celebration of dropped and wasted food is that it indicates a profoundly problematic attitude towards food. Stuart explains:

Throughout the developed world, food is treated as a disposable commodity, disconnected from the social and environmental impact of its production. Most people would not willingly consign tracts of Amazon rainforest to destruction – and yet that is happening every day.

Even if the authors of Menu mean well, their magazine seems to forget that food is not another consumer product like designer clothes or jewellery to be artfully arranged and photographed.

If they really do want to change they ways in which we eat, it’s not enough just to encourage people to eat local cuisines and buy their meat from independent butchers. Not only do we need to throw away less of our food, but we must understand the ecological, social, and even political implications of what we choose to eat – and throw away. The decision to waste food in the name of cool sticks in the throat.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. G. Ross #

    Outrage! I’m sure the magazine was conceptualised by a man – no woman would be so uncaring and insensitive. Is it just me or is the image of food on the floor inherently violent and transgressive? Won’t someone please think of the starving children?

    August 28, 2011
    • I think both men and women worked on the magazine. I don’t think that gender had anything to do with their choice of photographs.

      August 28, 2011
  2. Isabel #

    How is this different from how other food is being photographed? You think the photos of food you see in magazines can be eaten afterwards? They use so many products to present the food more appetizing on photos, some of these include: motor oil, hair spray and shoe polish. Here are more examples:

    Not that I approve at all, I am shocked, saddened, but not surprised.

    August 29, 2011
    • Hi Isabel

      The point of the post is that the magazine celebrates the wasting of food as something hip/cool/poetic. I think that’s ridiculous.

      And it’s a great pity that food is wasted by stylists and photographers. That’s a fascinating website.

      August 29, 2011
      • Isabel #

        I see what you mean, it is about how they portray the wasting of food as something glamorous. Almost how music videos and such portray throwing money all over the place as an indication of wealth?
        Its silly in both cases, but tragic as well in the case of food: money can be picked up again…

        August 30, 2011
        • Exactly! That’s precisely the same analogy I’d use. And, as you say, there’s a difference between wasting money and wasting food.

          August 30, 2011
    • Isabel, I’d just like to say, as a food stylist, the food I style is ALWAYS edible and is often eaten by the crew after the shoot. I’m also friends with lots of stylists and none of us use things like that for our shoots. We try to get edible replacements for making foods shine etc. What you are talking about it for commercial use more but also, more and more companies want the food to be natural so that way of styling is not so relevant for a lot of stylists in SA anymore.

      September 16, 2011
      • That is interesting. I wonder to what extent there’s a difference between magazine/recipe book and commercial photography. As you can see, I know zilch about food photography, so thanks for the comment!

        September 16, 2011
  3. ann #

    Is it possible they were making an attempt at the free-gan movement? You know, where dumpsters from foodstores or restaurants are raided and people actually live off/cook with food that is wasted for whatever reason?

    August 29, 2011
  4. DeeCT #

    I always wonder what the main driving force was behind a “food festival” like this. Certainly not the promotion of the love of real South African culture or food… More a concept dreamt up late at night or maybe desperation. The wastage of food for the sake of being cool makes me feel bitter.

    September 16, 2011
    • I did wonder too. I think that the organisers really did mean well, but that they didn’t think their ideas through properly – and didn’t consider how their intentions would be read by those outside their milieu.

      September 16, 2011

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  2. Food and the Fabulous » Blog Archive » Toffie Food Festival 2011 – an independent view

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