As awareness of global climate and humanitarian issues increases, a growing number of us are seeking ways to grow, buy, and eat food more sustainably – by, for example, using food sharing apps to prevent food waste, reducing our plastic packaging consumption, or switching to less meat-centric diets. In the world today, one-third of the food produced for humans is estimated to go to waste, with society throwing away ten million tonnes of food per year in the UK alone. At the same time, food systems contribute to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
But how did societies think about food waste before these concerns earned a regular spot in the headlines? And what might we learn about the past – how people lived day-to-day, their beliefs, and the wider advances in industry – through this focus on food? This month’s thematic series, edited by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley, explores the history of food waste, thrift, and sustainability from the early modern period to the present. The blog posts are based on a series of papers presented at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference at the University of Cambridge (September 2019), which brought together historians, sociologists, and industry experts to address these topical questions.
Prior to the invention of artificial refrigeration, consumers themselves had to come up with thrifty ways to preserve food, which would otherwise quickly spoil or rot. Certain papers demonstrate how these kitchen experiments carried out by ordinary people (often women) might best be understood as scientific advancements. Others look at inventions in the packaging industry, from tin cans to plastic film, which have transformed the way that we eat today. ‘Thrifty’ foodways also demand particular attention in the context of conflict and war, when rulers used propaganda to enforce food rationing and new methods of collective cultivation on entire societies.
Moving from methods of preventing food waste to the food waste itself, several posts in this series explore processes that transformed waste products – like molasses from sugar or the ‘skim’ from milk – into viable and even desirable comestibles. The rise of veganism in recent years has seen similar developments, with companies transforming Aquafaba – the liquid gloop at the bottom of a can of chickpeas – into an egg substitute for baking, for instance. On the other hand, changing food habits have had the opposite effect: national consumption of offal (another ‘waste’ product) has declined dramatically in the past fifty years, from more than 50g per person per week in 1974 to only 5g in 2014.
Addressing themes of waste and sustainability in the history of food, these papers have made us think more about the historical relationship between cookery and scientific innovation, about the central role of food in wider social and political power dynamics, and about the enduring relationship between food and identity.
A particularly successful feature of the conference was the conversation it sparked between historians and present-day policy makers. Pioneering initiatives like History and Policy and Cambridge Sustainable Food can use knowledge of past food practices to better understand the advent of present-day food sustainability issues, to inform the direction of food initiatives in the future, and to engage the public with these consequential topics.
In what follows, some of our speakers reflect on the key themes from their papers.
This conference was hosted by Cambridge Body and Food Histories group, co-convened by Lucy Havard, Philippa Carter, and Kylie Chiu Yee Lu, and gratefully funded by Cambridge AHRC-DTP. For a full list of our fantastic speakers follow this link!