Our Dystopic Food System | Misplaced Episode #1

by Cristina Michelini and Sovina Taneja 

It’s 2021 now, but it is also, as of a few weeks ago, the Chinese New Year of the Ox. And it seems just right to start to start the conversation about the future of food with an interesting fact from the Chinese Language. 

Did you know that the Chinese word for population: Rénkǒu, refers to a people (人) but also their “mouth” (口) to imply that we need to feed the population?

Diagram adopted from @Mackoylaw

We will exist only as long as we can all feed ourselves. But will we be able to keep up with the tremendous population growth that we are looking at? 

For the first episode of our series called Misplaced, we sat down with Dr. Daisy Tam from HK Food Works, to discuss what the future of food holds and to discover why she is a self-proclaimed rubbish scholar. 

What the future holds

You’ve probably heard it a million times: by 2050 global population is expected to rise to 9.7 billion. This alone poses a lot of questions around how we are going to sustain ourselves.

What is also posing a bigger dilemma is that most of the growth will happen in Asia and Africa, and that more and more of us will flock to cities. 

Two thirds of us will live in urban areas. That’s about 2.5 billion new neighbours for the lot of us. And remember, population growth equals more mouths to feed. 

What is the place of food systems in this future?

It’s fair to assume that we are going to see imperfections like never before. We’re seeing massive misplacements already. 

Let’s bring in the big boys, the numbers!

⅓ of all the food we produce is going to waste - that’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food worth almost 1 trillion USD. Rotten food that we can’t eat, you may think. Actually, nearly half of what’s thrown is still fit for consumption. The highest of this statistic is drawn from the healthy stuff, our sworn enemies, fruit & veg. 

 

 

@FAO 2012

We need to understand why and how food waste comes to be. Daisy has made this her mission, which is why she refers to herself as a rubbish scholar

So, why are we throwing away stuff that is  too good to go? (pun intended - tune in for Episode 9)

Because we are misplacing it. That’s right, it is a matter of disorganization and of food not fitting into our structure. 

Confusing, right? Bear with us.

Food waste is food out-of-place

As Daisy highlights in her episode, a famous anthropologist, a few decades ago, introduced a concept that can clarify what’s happening. 

Her name was Mary Douglas and she said that “dirt is not absolute”. 

Ever noticed how certain things are normally considered beautiful, like beautiful shiny hair or the soil where our plants grow, but if you see them in a different context, they are considered dirt, like the hair in your shower drain or the soil under your shoes?

Well, that happens to how we see food too: when it is presented to us as pretty, clean and on a nice plate, we consider it worthy and edible. But when it is found at the back of a supermarket shelf and it is bruised and brown, ‘we think of it as garbage’. 

Something good and beautiful becomes dirt and garbage when it is out-of-place and doesn’t fit our structure we get rid of it.

This is how food waste happens

Food waste does not only happen after we, consumers, buy it and decide to dispose of it. 

There is food waste, and there is food loss. It may be confusing because often these two words are used interchangeably. Case in point, we have actually done so in this article. Until now.

So, what is food loss?

In simple words, to make food accessible and affordable we have learned to produce it at scale. But, this has also turned into a race of suppliers overproducing and having to hedge against market prices to protect their livelihoods. It’s a constant battle of matching supply & demand in a way that works. 

In this race there are inevitable inefficiencies. Spills, spoils and abnormal reductions in quality such as wilting, bruising occur before a product gets to the supermarket: this is how food loss happens. Something along the way makes the food unfit for consumption. Call it the calendar era BC, Before the Customer (not before COVID-19).

For example, if transported in sacks, almost 17% of tomatoes are lost during transportation alone! In the case of snap beans, that can reach 18%. (FAO, 2019)


On the other hand, food waste is food that is of good quality & fit for consumption that we, consumers, do not eat and discard sometimes even before it actually spoils. 

How big is the problem?

In large cities we see a lot of food being wasted, and Hong Kong mimics what happens in other cities worldwide.

Taking a page out of Daisy’s presentation, she shows us how Hong Kong disposes of 3600 tonnes of food waste in landfills everyday, which is equivalent to 250 double decker buses in weight. Scary stuff because landfills are already overflowing & strained, once a prediction but now a reality because we’ve physically run out of space 

One would assume that all this happens because everyone has more than enough food. And one would also assume that as long as you have enough money to feed yourself, the system works. 

This is where we introduce you to one of the biggest misconceptions that is food security. 

“Is food security a problem ONLY for the lower economic class?”

Is being rich being safe? Does having money mean having resources? We tend to think that as long as we have the means, we will be healthy & happily fed. Unfortunately, this won’t hold true for very long.

‘Food security is a state wherein all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy & active life’ (FAO, 1996). These elements in combination provide a sense of security. 

We saw how difficult it became to have access to certain goods during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our food supply chains took a hit. 

Natural disasters, pandemics or any similar disaster can lead to empty supermarket shelves, panic buying and inflated (toilet paper) prices. This is a perfect example of how fragile food security is even within the apparent abundance of cities. 

At some point when prices go up, those of us that have the financial means to protect ourselves can buy some time. This is part of one of the pillars of food security, access, which refers to having enough resources to obtain appropriate food.
Surely, financial resources help, but these events also affect the availability of food, which is the consistent presence of sufficient amounts of food. And when there’s no more, there’s no more. 


Sure, these disasters don’t come around every other day, so food security is not really an issue to worry about on a daily basis.

Wrong!

Ultimately, they will happen again and it’s not something we can ignore. It’s our ability to  bounce back from it that matters. 

“Food security is much bigger than just poverty alleviation, it has to do with the way our cities can become more resilient.” - Daisy Tam

Resilience also means being able to take care of our health. We need the appropriate knowledge & skills to make the right use of food. Do we understand nutrition? Do we know how to provide for ourselves to sustain a healthy life? This is a whole other problem, and we will address it in our Episode 6.

Time to do something about it

This is a lot to take in, especially because it feels like none of this is in our control. 

In the interest of efficiency, Daisy and Livin Farms are providing you with the toolkit to tackle food waste and food security. Welcome to the fight, #misplacedwarrior!

 Call to action 1 - Buy your food locally!

Shorten the supply chain! Not sure what it means? To put it simply, the shorter the trip, the less the waste produced. For example, less resources are put into packaging and transporting food, but also less food spoils during the travel (food loss). Added benefit: you are supporting your local businesses.

Call to action 2 - Manage your food stock! 

Our eyes are bigger than our stomach - which also means, we tend to buy a bit too much. Ever been to the supermarket while you’re hungry? You know what we are talking about. Buy only as much as you can consume before it spoils. 

Call to action 3 - cook what’s left! 

Cook your leftovers, there is a fun creative process in trying to figure out what to do with weird leftovers: Masterchef mystery box challenge! We learned something about it in a workshop with Punam Chopra - never thought we could make delicious soup out of veggie peels. 

Call to action 4 - #buyugly !

Yes, food does not need to be pretty to be edible or yummy. And, by the way, often it’s cheaper ;-) $$$$$$ Check your supermarkets at the end of the day for the ugly aisle and buy those poor bruised bananas. 

Call to action 5 - Get that bread (it’s a millennial thing) 

Let us introduce you to the practice of Food Rescue (hkfoodworks.com)

Food Rescue, also called food recovery or food salvage, is the collection and redistribution of surplus food to distribute it to local emergency food programs. 

It basically means, do not let good food go to landfill and feed who needs it the most. 

Dr Daisy Tam introduced us to an example of food rescue initiatives that she founded here in Hong Kong, called Breadline. Breadline is a webapp that connects volunteers to bakeries to collect surplus food for the needy. They make use of crowd-based logistics as they found it is a more effective way of mobilising resources by allowing individuals to self-organise and collaborate in real-time. “How do we enable people who don't know each other to work collectively but in an independent manner?” - This is a SYSTEM!

Bonus Activity
If you have not already adventured into the world of vermicomposting or of feeding insects with food leftovers, well, you guessed it, that is our next suggestion!
Our proud Hive Explorer owners feed their food leftovers to the mealworms in it. This feeds the larvae, which can be sources of proteins for pets like birds and fishes. The added benefit is that the food waste also turns into amazing natural fertiliser which is…. The mealworms poop! 
What a way of closing the loop ;-) 


Educate yourself
At the end of the day, the best way to get started on the sustainability journey is to educate oneself on the issues we are facing and the solutions. 
When it comes to food, we recommend that you start by understanding the food system. That is why we prepared a lesson for you to download and experiment with, which is free and accessible here.