Last December I was on Swiss television speaking out against food waste and going dumpster diving in front of the cameras. Twice. Since then all “my” dumpsters have been locked with a chain and padlock. I expected this. I expected confrontations and even legal consequences, which I did my best to avoid by obtaining second and third opinions from lawyers advising me on the legality of dumpster diving in Switzerland. What I didn't expect was my own disillusionment.
Legal problems didn't materialize. Retail managers didn't call my telephone making idle threats. People in my small town didn't wrinkle their noses at me. Everyone was interested and supportive. At the same time, the organization against food waste that I co-founded was taking off with a mighty force. I was busy. But I was not happy.
There is something unnerving about becoming a public figure. I started seeing myself how I expected others might view me. I began placing ever-higher standards on myself. If I let a lemon go moldy in my refrigerator I would surge with self-accusations. I would streamline my discipline, eating wilted outer leaves from a head of lettuce and vegetable peels others would discard. And I could never blur out the consequences of food waste, the consequences of my oversized European footprint. In all my actions I considered the other half of our Earth's population living on mere dollars a day and the billion people suffering malnourishment and starvation. I had two billion hungry eyes watching me choke down a dinner I had burned.
I couldn't live with the knowledge I had gained. There is almost nothing worse for the environment and more threatening to the sustainability of our human race than the meat and dairy industry. It is in and of itself the epitome of food waste. I stopped drinking milk (which naturally required that I give up coffee) and became vegan. And since my dumpsters were all locked and I could no longer just “rescue” food that had been discarded, I had to make ethical shopping decisions. No tomatoes in winter. For months we lived on cabbage, potatoes, and beans. And still I couldn't be satisfied with myself. An adopted Swiss calvinistic discipline merged with the hearty Catholic guilt I had learned as a child. Anything I did “right” wasn't enough and every slip in my behavior (I really needed a coffee sometimes) became a moral infringement. I knew the right way to live and consume for a sustainable future, yet still couldn't manage to change my behavior enough. I was miserable. I had to stop thinking, had to deregulate the self-control. I had to turn away from the two billion hungry eyes that always watch me.
I dedicated my whole winter to co-founding an organization against food waste. But day by day I lost the sense in what I was doing. I learned the Number One Goal of an NGO: sustainability. That basically boils down to money. A good idea isn't sustainable on its own, though we had lots of good ideas. We needed to turn our concept into a business plan. I had to think about marketing and target audiences, about finance plans and fund-raising. Budgets were debated and salaries contemplated. Figures rose from tens to hundreds of thousands to millions. And the whole time I had those two billion hungry eyes watching me. I realized that self-sustainability made our NGO into just another capitalist money churner. I was elected president and quit the next day.
I had come to the conclusion that I was living in self-deception. There was no justification for raising money for a public awareness campaign about food waste when that same money could be used for direct fundamental interventions for maximizing crop yields and storage in developing countries. Campaigning governmental organizations to pass regulatory legislation while the food industry simultaneously lobbies for deregulation is merely an exercise in endurance, an exercise I could not endure for long. The master's house must be dismantled and I had used the master's tools for renovation. As long as we see food waste as a problem we are renovating the master's house. Food waste is a symptom for a completely dysfunctional food industry. And our completely dysfunctional food industry is a symptom for a vastly dysfunctional society. New tools – not just new methods, but new attitudes – are needed for dismantling the master's house and building a new model of society.
Well over 40% of the food that is wasted in Switzerland is wasted at the consumer level. We throw out old bread and lettuce every day, yet have the false perception that we never waste food. In fact, 47% of us think we almost never waste food. We are blind to our own waste. The rest of the wasted food happens at retail, production, distribution and agricultural levels. Yet consumers could greatly influence and help reduce this waste by buying food from local farmers. It is quite simple: buy whole foods, not processed, canned or frozen; buy local, seasonal foods; and eliminate retail by buying directly from farmers. Europe Parliament suggests goals to slash food waste in half by 2025. But if we stopped fighting food waste symptomatically we could slash food waste by 90%.
Media plays an important role in facilitating the ideological change needed for people to redefine their place in the farm-to-fork food structure. If I could stand being a public figure then I would open my heart and my refrigerator to a voyeuristic public, keen on seeing a 41-year-old housewife feeding her children food from a trashcan. But I cannot stand playing pawn in a game of greenwashing – market-strategizing and developing corporate social responsibility models are just renovating the master's house. Sensational articles are written, newspaper subscriptions are sold, and Christoph Blocher can still sit upon his fortune. Nothing will change because of a Sunday column called “My Refrigerator.”