Anthony Bourdain (star of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown), is his edgy, humorous self in Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. The film, which screened in its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Bourdain produced with Zero Point Zero Productions’ partners Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Joe Caterini and co-director Nari Kye (Anna Chai also directed). However, Bourdain whose narration threads through the key issues about food waste globally and in the U.S. is more acerbic and ripping than ever I imagined he could be. But he, Dan Barber (Stone Barnes, Blue Hill), Mario Batali, Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin), Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana), Tristan Stewart (Toast Ale), and others who are in the forefront of trying to figure out how to rescue food and use it to create delicious meals, must tell it like it is. The situation is bleak.
Food waste is perhaps the most dire problem we face as Americans that we can do something about right now. Consider a few of these facts that directors bring out through interviews and celebrity chef comments in the initial segments of their amazing documentary.
Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for “people consumption” (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes yearly), gets lost or wasted. Food losses and waste amounts to around US$ 680 billion in industrialized countries and US$310 billion in developing countries. According to Anthony Bourdain, all along the processing of food for consumption, there is waste at every turn, from the farm, and the harvest, to the distribution, to the grocery story or green market, to the preparation, to the dinner table, to the leftovers.
And where does this food predominately end up? In landfills. In garbage dumps. Ninety percent of the food produced ends up in landfills. If we could only redistribute the unused food to those who need it. Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be rescued, there would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
But globally, people are not just hungry. It is a tragedy that globally, thousands of individuals face chronic starvation and die from disease and malnutrition. In the U.S. one in six individuals is food insecure, (in Europe it is 1 in 20). These are not just lazy, “good-for-nothings” as politocos would have us believe so we can dismiss them and de-fund programs which they label entitlements. The families are working in low paying jobs (an employment situation which has never been recovered since the second Great Depression), and many of them are white. In the film, Mario Batali looks dead-on into the camera (in the US we are the worst perpetrators), and he brings the problem right into our homes. He says, “This waste is criminal!”
Anna Chai and Nari Kye’s efforts are subtly brilliant because of how they have structured their film and carried us along a journey of discovery to recognize the staggering numbers and the criminality of food waste that resonates profoundly for our own lives. First they identify the unimaginable and make it visible. They outline the causes (taking us to farms, showing the process of food distribution, etc.), then bring us to the end of the line-the food devastation in landfills.
This is where the concept of food waste goes exponentially unconscionable and Batali is not kidding when he points out the egregiousness of waste as not only “stealing” food from the hungry, but also wantonly, negligently, stealing all of the resources our planet offers for us to make it to the next generation. We won’t get there if the situation remains and in the next decades we continue to be as mindlessly stupid as we have been in the past.
Filmmakers and experts reveal how food in landfills exacerbates global warming-climate change. As the food decomposes, methane gasses are released. Methane, heavier than CO2 is a worse pollutant of clean air. It erodes oxygen supplies, acidifies the oceans, chokes off marine life, harms ecosystems that sustain plants, animals and us. You didn’t note any discussion about the higher degree temperatures increasing glacial melt did you? We won’t acknowledge that is happening for fear of offending those government leaders who think global warming doesn’t exist.
You thought you had handled the problem of plastic by shopping with your cloth bags? Well, what about the food you are throwing away? Filmmakers point out that one head of lettuce in a landfill takes twenty-five years to break down. You have to throw away some lettuce because your guests won’t eat wilted leaves? Throw it in your composting bin or bring it to your green market for them to compost. If you multiply your leaves and that head of lettuce you threw in the garbage last week with thousands upon thousands of heads that got wilted and that grocery stores daily en masse throw away because housewives like their lettuce crisp and fresh-looking (even though it has no taste and the wilted leaves at the green market have much more nutrition and taste because they were picked in the morning), then you begin to see the extent of the problem of why food waste is so endemic.
Filmmakers show that unsustainable farming practices expend and do not replenish resources (air, water, rich soil, etc.). Think of the water wasted to irrigate veggies that end up in your waste-can and end up in a landfill. The amount of money that can be saved with careful planning and husbanding water, crop yields, etc., not only can be realized by farmers and businesses and grocery stores and distribution centers, but it also filters down to families if thoughtful planning is accomplished and if consumers don’t mind selecting some bruised fruit at a lower price (often more delicious), than the perfect apples and oranges with no taste. (up to $1500 a year per family)
Food and resource waste directly correlates to global warming and climate change, whether deaf, dumb and blind politicians acknowledge this or not. And that insidiously correlates to shifting population migrations as refugees challenged by drought, famine and war, in a subtle and complicated connection with dwindling resources (food, clean water, land), seek areas to live that are not under such duress. When Bourdain implies that everything about food is tied to everything else, the message not only “hits home,” filmmakers have brought you to a place where you are thrilled to recognize interventions and programs and innovations that are eliminating and reducing our criminality of food waste.
Filmmaker interviews and visits with celebrity chefs move throughout the film. Chai and Nye follow Tristam Stewart to England as he shows how he recovers 900,000 tons of bread wasted a year by making artisinal beer. They travel to Modena, Italy and then Milan to see Massimo Bottura who created Food For the Soul and the divine concept of the artistry of the Refettorios. With beauty and elegance Bottura has found a way to uplift the hearts of the “invisible needy” in his refettorios that rival dining at The Four Seasons. Filmmakers visit Dan Barber who takes us through his guided veggie discoveries and tastes while he educates us to the egregiousness of food waste with produce (fruits and vegetables, roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food). And they shadow Danny Bowien’s travels to Japan where chefs surprise him with delicious dishes that use unbelievable cuts from the animal that he never tried. He is converted and vows to take ideas he’s learned in Japan home to his restaurant.
These entertaining, enlightening and uplifting segments of the film, which are woven into the dialogue about food waste, dissolve the “doom and gloom” of the underlying problems by showing there is much we can do. Indeed, entrepreneurs and innovators, spurred by funds from the Rockefeller Foundation (which is supplying grants through YieldWise) are working to ameliorate the situation and move the paradigm to Zero Food Waste in the next decades, regardless of the lack of political will that recently has been demonstrated. The uplifting examples of how other countries and individuals are curtailing food waste are inspiring. They encourage us toward activism on a personal and local level: at the very least composting, wiser food shopping and more.
This is a must-see film for its clarity, for its inspiration, for its no-holds-barred revelations, for its love and good will, for its energy. Its unforgettable incisiveness magnifies the importance of our individual and national food waste imprint. Its generosity and positive outlook spur us to become leaders in our own lives and communities so that we can have a global impact. The situation is bleak, but it is not without hope. We can positively shape our future and the future of the generations that come after us. It is only a matter of starting today.
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