Campbell Soup Can MalthusWith Expo Milano now nearly one month behind us, one more postscript is in order.  Along with the many impressive exhibitions and pavilions by participating nations and organizations, the Expo experience benefited from a very impactful exhibit by Slow Food.  On the outside of the Slow Food structure, a series of posters described multiple challenges of the global food system — beginning with food waste and an eye-catching picture of a soup can (utilizing the universally-recognized Campbell’s Soup red and white color scheme) with a label including the phrasing “Malthus’ Wasted Food With Squandered Stuff Soup.”  The reference to Malthus brings to mind the historical question of whether humanity is destined to suffer from acute food shortages based on the assumption that population grows at a faster rate than does the food supply.  The “squandered stuff” reference reinforces the idea that we simply can’t waste such exorbitant quantities of food (between one and two billion tons annually) if we expect to feed more than nine billion people by 2050.  The label also includes a map of Africa, the region housing the vast majority of the world’s hungry today (about 800 million) — those most likely to suffer the most if we fail to meet the nine billion by 2050 challenge.  It’s a powerful picture, and a poignant message.

This was followed by a series of other impactful posters, with titles including The Future of Food Security, The Last Forest of Paraguay, The Pillars of Humanity, The Quinoa Boom, School For Food, Industrial Fishing Versus Traditional, Fishing Rights for All, What a Waste!, Food Supply Chain, The Water Crisis that Will Be, and Solar Thirst in the Sahel.  Viewed together, these posters served as a “one-stop shop” of critical information for the millions of Expo visitors — giving a systemic view of the many interrelated and pressing global food challenges.

The second poster devoted to food waste (What a Waste!) focused on a core issue:  the need to properly value our food.  The rapid evolution of the industrial food system in developed countries has led to a culture of abundance — we expect all types of food to be available to us on a 24×7 basis.  We receive constant reinforcement of abundance with large portions, “all you can eat,” “buy one get one free” and other “value” deals, and the continually-replenished produce displays at our supermarkets.  And along with that seemingly infinite accessibility, we expect our food to be relatively inexpensive.  Coupled with the ease of discarding excess food, it’s hardly surprising that we waste so much.  Slow Food calls attention to this issue, noting:

Every day one third of global food production will never reach our tables.  In our house, in restaurants, factory and fields a huge amount of potential nutrients is lost. 

  Is it because we don’t weight the importance of food?  Detaching food from its basic importance is a serious mistake.  Every time the fork goes to mouth we have to think about the energy and the work put into it. 

  The impact of food waste equals to a global tragedy. 

That “detachment” is at the heart of the food waste problem, and the world needs a concerted educational effort to overcome it.  Making sense of the scale of the environmental impact of food waste for the average person helps.  Slow Food points out the energy impact of food waste, for example, noting that the “mismanagement of food resources contributes to global warming with 3.3 billion tons of CO2, ten times the emission of Italy.”  Further, the group notes that annual food waste equates to 250 cubic kilometers of water (the amount of annual water flow of the river Volga) and involves 1.4 billion acres of watered soil.  Slow Food also lists several basic solutions for saving food, including buying only what one actually needs, planning shopping lists, making use of leftovers, sharing food with neighbors, and developing legislation to prevent supermarkets from discarding edible food (i.e. aggressively redistributing excess food to food banks).

Inside its exhibit, Slow Food posed a critical question:  How can we feed the planet, guaranteeing good, clean, and fair food for everyone?  The organization stressed the need to protect biodiversity to achieve that goal, noting that “systems that are uniform or lacking in biodiversity are fragile.”  This message was reinforced with a giant hourglass containing the warning “Every year we lose 27,000 species of vegetables and animals, 3 species every hour, 1 species every 20 minutes.”  Further, Slow Food noted that “Protecting biodiversity means respecting all diversities: of places, knowledge, cultures…It means producing less, but giving more value to what is produced and minimizing waste.”

That “value” theme is the key.  Without doubt, a concerted global effort to reduce food waste would greatly reduce consumptive pressure on scarce resources while easing the rate of biodiversity loss.

At the end of its exhibit, Slow Food posed the question “Dopo Expo?”  (After Expo?) along with the message “Another world is possible.”  As many exhibits at Expo Milano conveyed, that world should include a sustainable, equitable food system.  Moving toward such a food system, and meeting the nine billion by 2050 challenge, starts with making better use of existing food resources by reducing food waste.  And that begins with properly valuing our food.  Thanks to Slow Food for driving home such a critical point.