Food and eating

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On an average day Londoners might eat over 3 million eggs in one form or another and the equivalent of about 350,000 large (800g) loaves of bread. As a nation, Britons eat nearly 10 billion eggs a year - 26 million every day - which placed end to end would reach from the Earth to the moon. Londoners consume 6,900,000 tonnes of food per annum. A good portion goes through Smithfield, which sells 85,000 tonnes of meat a year, and Billingsgate, which sells 35,000 tonnes of fish. Between 700 and 750 million broiler chickens (chickens bred for their meat) are reared and slaughtered each year in the UK. When eating out, Londoners consume 74 per cent more ethnic food, 41 per cent more fish and 137 per cent more fruit than the British average.7

Vast amounts of water are consumed by agriculturists and horticulturalists to keep their crops alive, healthy and growing, not to mention fertilizers and pesticides. Animal farming impacts even more. For cattle raised in feedlots, it takes roughly 7 pounds of grain to add a pound of live weight to the animal. Seventy per cent of the grain produced in the US and 40 per cent of the world's supply is fed to livestock, largely to satisfy burger demand in fast-food chains.8 To produce 1 pound of beef, a cow has produced 0.5 pounds of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, which is equivalent to 10.5 pounds of CO2. The beef eaten by the average American in a year has produced the methane equivalent of 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide.9

To get on to supermarket and shop shelves, food travels ever greater distances to sate multicultural and metropolitan tastes. Of the 7 million tonnes of food consumed by Londoners each year, 80 per cent is imported from outside the UK. Over half of the vegetables and 95 per cent of the fruit Londoners eat is imported.10 Each tonne of food in London has travelled approximately 640km. Therefore, 3,558,650,000,000 tonne-km of road freight was required to meet London's food demands.11 Even though the UK is able to grow lettuces throughout the year, imports increased from 21.8 per cent of the total supply in 1987 to 47.1 per cent in 1998. Nearly a quarter of all lettuces imported into the UK come from Spain. For every calorie of carrot flown from South Africa, we use 66 calories of fuel. For every calorie of iceberg lettuce flown in from Los Angeles we use 127 calories of fuel.12 The food chain, including agriculture, processing and transport, contributes at least

The long-distance lunch

A traditional Sunday lunch could easily have travelled 25,000 miles if a chicken from Thailand and fresh vegetables from Africa are included in a supermarket shopping basket. The trend for supermarkets to source food from overseas that could well be grown in the UK is the problem. In Britain the distance food is transported increased 50 per cent between 1978 and 1999.

• Chicken from Thailand: 10,691 miles by ship

• Runner beans from Zambia: 4912 miles by plane

• Carrots from Spain: 1000 miles by lorry

• Mangetouts from Zimbabwe: 5130 miles by plane

• Potatoes from Italy: 1521 miles by lorry

• Sprouts from Britain: 125 miles by lorry

• Transport of imported goods from port of entry to distribution centre: 625 miles

• Transport from distribution centres to supermarket: 360 miles

However, choosing seasonal products and purchasing them locally at a farmers' market, for instance, could reduce the total distance to 376 miles, 1/66th of the distance of the meal above.13

22 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, according to one estimate.14 Conversely, many high-density cities in the developing world produce up to 30 per cent of food production within their city boundaries.


Around one third of food grown for human consumption in the UK ends up in the rubbish bin and Britain throws away £20 billion worth of unused food every year, equal to five times its spending on international aid and enough to lift 150 million people out of starvation.15 Seventeen million tonnes of food is ploughed into Britain's landfill sites every year.16

Meanwhile, food is increasingly packaged using plastics, metal and paper products. A typical London household generates around 3-4kg of packaging waste per week. It is estimated that London households produce approximately 663,000 tonnes of packaging waste per annum, of which 67 per cent is food packaging. A quarter of the overall waste we produce is packaging.17 For every tonne of food consumed in York, a quarter of a tonne of packaging is produced.18 Londoners consume approximately 94 million litres of mineral water per annum. Assuming all bottles were 2-litre, this would give rise to 2260 tonnes of plastic waste. A bottle of Evian, the top-selling brand, travels approximately 760km from the French Alps to the UK.19

In total, the average Londoner throws away more than seven times their own weight in rubbish every year and a London household produces a tonne of rubbish in that time, the weight of a family car. Londoners produce enough waste to fill an Olympic swimming pool every hour or to fill the Canary Wharf tower every ten days. London's waste is transported to 17 main municipal solid waste transfer stations, 45 civic amenity sites, 2 incinerators, 23 recycling centres, 2 compost centres, 18 landfill sites and 2 energy-from-waste plants. Of the 17 million tonnes produced by the capital, 4.4 million is collected by councils. Seventy per cent of this waste travels more than 120 kilometres. For every million tonnes of waste generated in London, approximately 100,000 waste vehicle journeys are required.20 Developed countries produce as much as up to six times the amount of waste of developing countries.

English-speaking cities are almost linguistically predisposed to treat waste as a nuisance rather than a resource, perhaps thus adopting an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to waste. Seventy-three per cent of London's waste goes to landfill, 19 per cent is incinerated, and 8 per cent recycled or composted. Overall the UK recycles 23 per cent of waste; in the Netherlands the figure is 64 per cent and in Germany 57 per cent.21 Ninety per cent of all of London's landfill goes to areas outside London.

Perhaps the most recognizable landfill site in the world is Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, New York. The site covers 2200 acres and mounds range in height from 90 to approximately 225 feet. The result of almost 50 years of land filling, primarily of household waste, it is estimated to contain some 100 million tonnes of garbage. Now Fresh Kills is permanently closed, New York's rubbish is sent to landfill sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, some of them 300 miles away.

Over 333,000 disposable nappies are buried every day in Essex landfill sites alone.22 Approximately 1.7 million nappies are used every day in London, which equates to around 202 tonnes of waste per day or 74,000 tonnes per annum; 75 per cent (55,000 tonnes) of this is sewage.23

The number of live births in London in 2001 was 104,000. This equates to a total weight of 354 tonnes (assuming the average weight of a newborn is 3.4kg). The number of deaths in London in for the same year was 58,600. This equates to a total weight of 4160 tonnes (assuming the average adult weight is 71kg). The dead are buried in 124 municipal cemeteries, 12 Jewish, 3 Roman Catholic, 1 Church of England, 1 Muslim cemetery and 9 operational private cemeteries.24 London's cemeteries are running out of burial space. Central London, Hackney, Camden and Tower Hamlets will run out of space within five years.

Pollution keeps the death rate up. On the Marylebone Road on 28 July 2005, one of the hottest days of the year, NOx levels rose to 1912 micrograms per cubic metre, the equivalent of motorists and pedestrians breathing in four cigarettes a minute. Normal daily exposure to London's air is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes. In pollution hotspots like the Marylebone Road, daily vehicle emissions are so concentrated that pedestrians and those with offices or homes on the roadside are exposed to the NOx equivalent of more than 30 cigarettes a day. Other affected areas include King's Road (29 cigarettes a day) and Hammersmith Broadway (27.3 ciga-rettes).25 Consider Kolkata, where the pollution in cigarette equivalents is over 40, or the far more polluted Chinese and Russian cities.26

Disposal or reuse of waste apart, there is the cosmetic matter of street cleaning. Fast-food lovers, smokers and gum-chewers keep council workers employed cleaning up after them. It is estimated that three-quarters of the British population chew gum regularly. They buy 980 million packs a year, and spit out more than 3.5 billion pieces - most of which they dispose of 'inappropriately'. On any given day, there are as many as 300,000 pieces of gum stuck to Oxford Street.27

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