Chaim Ingram

Acute angles: Food wastage in Judaism

Dear Rabbi. I was shocked to hear on the radio that here in Australia 2.4 billion kilograms of food never leaves farms and ends up in landfill because less-attractive fruits and vegetables are deemed “ineligible for sale” and rejected by the major supermarket chains. I am flabbergasted! I have since discovered that in many other countries it is the same. What would Judaism have to say about such gargantuan food wastage? Shalom from Julia.

Dear Julia,

Thank you so much for this question. The short answer is that Judaism condemns such food wastage out of hand!

Deut 20:19 prohibits the wanton destruction of a fruit tree even in the course of war,  and certainly under normal conditions. From here our Sages extrapolate the general rule that unnecessary waste and needless destruction (bal tashkhit) is forbidden in Judaism. This applies to anything useful to man and beast, particularly to food, the staple of life. Sefer haChinuch (#Mitsva 529) writes: “It is the way of the pious…that…they never destroy even one grain of mustard in the world and they are upset by any destruction that they see.” It is told that the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, as a young child, plucked a leaf from a tree needlessly and was roundly chastised by his father! We know, too, (Chulin 91a)  that our ancestor Jacob crossed back over a river alone to retrieve some small jars he left behind so that they would not go to waste.

All this is on an individual level. How infinitely more reprehensible  is the squandering of 2.4 million ton of fruit and vegetables annually because buyers are so picky and won’t purchase them if they aren’t Greta Garbo standard! Our Rabbis (again see Deut 20:19) liken a tree to man. Beauty in fruit, as in humans, is only skin-deep! A wonky carrot, a blemished mango, a misshapen courgette may taste twice as good as its pulchritudinous equivalent. Apparently, if the circumference of an orange or a grapefruit is 5mm off the norm, the big supermarket chains will reject it. “Criminal” would not be too strong a word to describe this.

While I normally take statistics with a liberal pinch of salt, several sites I have visited tell me the same grim figures:

  • Less-conventionally attractive fruits and vegetables from Australian farms deemed ineligible for sale by major supermarkets and grocery retailers make up 31.5 per cent of Australia’s total annual food waste – about 7.6 million tonnes of food across the supply and consumption chain (the equivalent of 152 Sydney Harbour Bridges weighing 50,000 tons), which costs the economy about $36.6 billion each year and accounts for about three per cent of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Each year, $36.6 billion worth of food is wasted, equating to 312kg per person, or roughly $2250 per household annually.
  • The equivalent of one in five shopping bags of food purchased in Australia goes to waste.

It is strange how certain environmental principles have been passionately embraced while others are ignored. For example, much of society has become super-resolute about avoiding single-use plastic bags. Large supermarket chains have banned them altogether while failing to find an effective equivalent (the paper bags on offer will often tear almost immediately). Yet paradoxically this very pertinaciousness has created poor packaging and storing habits leading to food spoiling prematurely. In the words of RMIT University Associate Professor Lucas Parker: “If we forgo the plastic packaging on some items like steak, it can lead to waste because it will impact the steak’s shelf life.”

I would encourage everyone with a social conscience to speak out against the scandal of bal tashkhit in respect of first-world food wastage which strikes at the heart of Torah sensibilities.

And returning to the “micro” dimension, each of us personally has a duty to educate ourselves and our families that leftover challah, cholent, chicken, fish, vegetables etc need not and should not be discarded after Shabbat just because they are no longer super-fresh. If we are capable of adopting good recycling and anti-pollution habits, we should also be capable of embracing a true Torah imperative such as avoidance of bal takhshit by adopting good food-preservation habits and resolving not to be so picky! And we can feel good about ourselves in the process as we contribute to the  mending of the world!

Global waste facts

There is enough food produced in the world to feed everyone.

One third of all food produced is lost or wasted – around 1.3 billion tons of food – costing the global economy close to $940 billion each year.

Up to 10% of global greenhouse gases comes from food that is produced, but not eaten.

Wasting food is worse than total emissions from flying (1.9%), plastic production (3.8%) and oil extraction (3.8%).

If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after USA and China.

Food rotting in landfill releases methane – 28x stronger than carbon dioxide.

Eliminating global food waste would save 4.4 million tonnes of C02 a year, the equivalent of taking one in four cars off the road.

One in nine people do not have enough food to eat, that’s 793 million people who are undernourished.

If one quarter of the food currently lost or wasted could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people.

Almost half of all fruit and vegetables produced are wasted (that’s 3.7 trillion apples).

Throwing away one burger wastes the same amount of water as a 90-minute shower.

It takes 25 years for a head of lettuce to decompose in landfill.

But the good news is, reducing food waste is the most effective thing individuals can do to address climate change.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at