When I was a child in the 1930s, my mother tried to get me to eat all the food on my plate by telling me to “think about all the starving children in India.” Today, I have a different reason for eating all the food on my plate — or at least not overfilling my plate when I’m at a Chinese buffet.
That reason is to avoid the effects of waste on the environment.
On national and international scales, waste per individual adds up to an enormous quantity, and it has major environmental effects. (Of course, our agricultural and food industries depend on this waste to a considerable degree, so it is not quite to everyone’s disadvantage.}
I enjoy Chinese food and have been to several Chinese buffets, two of them on repeated occasions. How many times have I observed at the buffet tables adults and poorly supervised children fill up their plates to the point at which they’re overflowing? How many times have I observed at dining tables adjacent to mine much of what has been taken goes uneaten and is taken away by the server to the trash bins? How many times have I observed diners return to the buffet tables to repeat the same behavior? Many, many times.
Are these diners wasteful as consumers in other ways and at other times? I don’t know, but material waste is widespread in our culture, and much of our economy depends on it. Although some of what we waste is recycled, much of it is not, and piles of it continue to grow larger and occupy much of our land.
Such widespread waste is incompatible with a healthy environment in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
An underlying principle of good environmental behavior is the avoidance of waste. Waste of food is a major category of waste, but it’s not the only one. Each time we waste food we pollute the environment and make global warming worse.
What makes this true?
First, the dependence of American and other industrial agricultural systems on the intensive use of chemical fertilizers — and the runoff of these chemicals into nearby rivers and coastal marine waters — is having major negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems and threatens fisheries and other uses of these waters.
Second, the intensive use of chemical pesticides by industrial agriculture is contaminating many areas and much of what we eat.
Third, American and other nations’ industrial agriculture is highly mechanized and is a major user of fossil fuels. Fueling and running these machines produces carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
Fourth, much of the methane, a powerful greenhouse gas affecting climate change, is released from organic accumulations from livestock, not to mention from human food wastes in landfills.
Fifth, there are many other negative effects of industrial-scale agriculture, including soil depletion and destruction of wetlands, forests and natural areas.
The more food we waste, the more food must be produced. Until water and air pollution and other negative environmental impacts of agriculture can be eliminated, our wastefulness simply magnifies these problems.
The damage done by food waste affects us all negatively — except that it enriches agriculture and food industrialists. It’s more than enough reason to avoid taking more food than you can eat the next time you fill your plate at a Chinese buffet.
We can similarly try to reduce waste in all aspects of our daily lives.
Ronald B. Davis of Orono is an emeritus professor at the School of Biology and Ecology and the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.