Food Waste and Wars - the Tale of the Brazilian Tomato

In the 1950s and 1970s, the United Kingdom and Iceland were involved in the famous cod wars—a dispute over fishing rights.

Today it is the tomato at the centre of attention—at least in Brazil—as prices last month soared 150 per cent in part due to food wastage of this essential and popular fruit.

Clever cartoons and tongue-in-cheek photos on the "Tomatoes are very expensive" Facebook page cast them as a luxury, Brazil's newest status symbol.

"Five star meal," reads the caption above a photo of a simple everday lunch of meat, rice and salad, crowned by two skimpy tomato slices.

"Want to conquer her love? Give her this," says a cartoon featuring a shining gold band topped off with a pyramid of juicy red tomatoes. To go along with the social media phenomenon, a Brazilian TV host replaced her usual gold necklace with a tomato necklace.

In addition, many ad agency used the tomato irony to sell their products: "cheaper than tomatoes", they would say. A famous T-shirt brand replaced the message "No war for oil" with "No war for tomatoes"

According to a report in the newspaper O Globo, the online backlash started when an Italian restaurant in Sao Paulo announced that it was holding off on buying fresh tomatoes and suggested clients opt for spaghetti with shrimp sauce instead.

A segment on the Globo television network showed Brazilians stocking up on tomatoes at supermarkets across the border in Argentina. The piece ended with a stern admonishment from a Brazilian customs agent warning that crossing back into Brazil with such "contraband" could lead to its confiscation.

The price surges were triggered by an extremely wet tropical winter and other factors including fuel prices and a reduction in tomato acreage.

However according to Luiz Carlos Iasbeck, a journalist and Professor at the Catholic University of Brasilia, there were other reasons familiar now to those following UNEP and the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Think-Eat Save: Reduce Your Foodprint campaign—‘chronic waste’.

“We know that chronic waste and loss begins in the process of production: from harvest, selection and storage, until the distribution. Either because of a lack of agricultural technology, or a lack of will to maximize productivity, we lose about 30% of food in the initial stages of the production cycle alone,” writes Professor Lasbeck in an article entitled The tomato syndrome and the ecology of food.

“As if this neglect wasn’t enough, when the food reaches the market (or supermarket), it goes through a further selection process driven by the consumer. That’s when the biggest waste occurs - gasp - for cosmetic and aesthetic reasons,” he adds.

“Food does not need to be healthy, but it does need to be beautiful and have a similar appearance to images appearing in TV commercials and print ads--These media celebrity examples will form the housewife’s choice of the food for her home. Food that does not match this dictatorial beauty pattern will be left on the shelves and serve as food for pigs and other animals, assuming it is not summarily discarded in the supermarket’s trash container,” says Professor Iasbeck

A report a few weeks ago said food prices globally were at a 40 year high and likely to go higher over the coming years and decades—so it may not just be tomatoes that get the luxury item treatment—potato earrings to corn on the cob cuff links may be next.

As for cod, there are no more wars cause there is precious little cod to fight over in the North Sea these days—how we manage the world’s fish stocks is another side to the same insanity coin as food wastage. But that is another tale!

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