Halloween: Pumpkins rotting in fields like zombies are a reminder of the terrifying cost of food waste – Philip Lymbery

Children dart excitedly through a field strewn with bright orange pumpkins. Parents, gamely face-painted as ghouls, sip coffee as they await the return of their offspring.

Carved pumpkins are a feature of Halloween, but what happens to their flesh? (Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Carved pumpkins are a feature of Halloween, but what happens to their flesh? (Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Soon they’ll be sifting through wheelbarrows piled high with pumpkins waiting to be carved. The resulting creations will adorn doorsteps and windowsills all around the neighbourhood. This is Halloween in our area, like so many, and a cause for celebration but one that also brings cause for reflection.

For a brief moment in the calendar, food becomes art and symbolism like no other. A locally famous pumpkin patch near where I live becomes a wondrous magnet for families to pick their own pumpkin from surrounding fields. The event seems to get bigger every year. For a few days each autumn, our countryside roads resemble urban rush-hour.

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The tradition of Halloween has both pagan and Christian roots and is believed to originate with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. The intention was to welcome in the harvest and usher in ‘the dark half of the year’. Celebrants believed that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world broke down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.

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Halloween has been celebrated for centuries, with Scottish and Irish immigrants taking the costumes and customs to North America in the 19th century, from where it spread to other parts of the world. Dressing up has long been part of it, with traditional costumes resembling vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils.

Now it’s not only children and their parents dressing up in costume, but pets too are also getting in on the act! According to the US National Retail Federation, consumers in the States are set to spend more than $700 million on Halloween costumes for their companion animals, with the most popular outfits being a pumpkin, a hot dog, a bat, a bumblebee or a witch.

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Barry D Hatchet

In our rural locality, I see Halloween coming for months before. Nearby fields are covered first in the bright yellow star-shaped flowers and then the bloated orange globules of pumpkins growing ready for the autumnal jamboree. We too celebrate Halloween in our family, but it also leaves me wondering whether there are unforeseen consequences that we need to address?

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At our local pumpkin patch, it’s brilliant to watch children bouncing on straw bales or tucking into ‘spooky slime’. There are screams, not of terror but of joy with kids spinning on a funfair. A mock graveyard has makeshift headboards with names like ‘Izzy Dead’, ‘Barry D Hatchet’ and ‘Willy Rot’.

That latter headboard caught my eye because, back out in the fields, unchosen pumpkins would soon be doing that – rotting. Days later, I had counted 1,000 pumpkins decaying where they lay. The spectre of pumpkins rotting in the fields reminds me of just how precious food from the land truly is and how avoiding food waste should be an imperative.

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The issue of food waste is coming to the fore as households, hit with rising shopping and energy bills, struggle to make ends meet. A recent study by supermarket Sainsbury’s found that almost £1.2 billion-worth of fruit, veg and bread is binned in the UK every year, with one in five consumers stating the reason they waste so much is they “don’t know what to cook”.

The scale of the waste is terrifying, with 17 million potatoes, 556 million onions and 733 million tomatoes ending up in dustbins each year. Food waste is also bad news for the planet because of the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production.

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If food waste were a nation

Globally we waste 25 to 30 per cent of our food, contributing to scarcity and climate change. Food waste is estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to contribute eight to ten per cent of total man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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Climate action organisation Wrap estimates that if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of climate-warming emissions after China and the USA.

Food waste also contributes to animal suffering. When it comes to meat, United Nations estimates suggest that the amount wasted every year is equivalent to 15 billion animals being reared, slaughtered and binned. That to me is a tragic reminder of why we shouldn’t take food for granted. And certainly, shouldn’t let it be lost or wasted.

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As an issue, food waste today is much higher on the public and political agenda than it was a decade ago, not least due to the pioneering work of Tristram Stuart and his groundbreaking book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal.

As Stuart explained to me, wasting so much food is particularly challenging in the face of a billion people worldwide going hungry. It adds pressure for further farmland which causes deforestation and more greenhouse gas emissions. The irrigation water used globally to grow wasted food would be enough for the domestic needs of nine billion people – the global human population expected by 2050. All of which suggests that we should be cooking more pumpkin and other leftovers, with tasty recipes for pie, soup, or cake.

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This Halloween as much as any other time of the year, fending off the scary effects of food waste should be as much front of mind as warding off ghosts, ghouls or other frightening characters.

Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. Philip’s new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future is out now. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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