Image: Customers browse through the fresh produce shelves, London
Adrian Dennis  /  AFP/Getty Images file
Customers browse through the fresh produce shelves at a Tesco supermarket in London. British families are being asked to cut food waste and use leftovers in a bid to fight global food costs.
updated 7/11/2008 6:46:42 PM ET 2008-07-11T22:46:42

Waste not, want not.

Evoking an era of World War II austerity, British families are being urged to cut food waste and use leftovers in a nationwide effort to fight sharply rising global food prices.

It's not back to ration books, "victory gardens" or squirrel-tail soup yet, but warning bells are being rung by experts at all levels of Britain's government as well as from the World Food Program.

With food and energy prices soaring around the world, a constant supply of high-quality, affordable food is no longer guaranteed, the officials are warning Britons. That could mean an era of scarcity like Britain's 1940-54 food rationing, during the war and its aftermath.

"Well, of course, in the war years it was not only immoral to waste food — this was one of our slogans then — it also was illegal," said Marguerite Patten, 92, who worked at the Ministry of Food during World War II and urges a return to those more thrifty days.

"I know it's old fashioned, but some old fashioned things are worth doing," she said.

During the war, Nazi Germany's U-boats crippled the flow of ships carrying food to Britain. Diets were tightly controlled by rationing. Bananas and pineapples became exotic treats, and enterprising housewives traded recipes for baked hedgehog and carrot fudge.

Food staples up 83 percent
The experts say the postwar era of cheap food has ended — squeezed by the demands of a growing world population, a greater appetite for meat among emerging middle classes in China and India and the pressure on agricultural land from biofuel production.

"Recent food price rises are a powerful reminder that access to ever more affordable food cannot be taken for granted," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a foreword to a bleak new report by Britain's Cabinet Office.

The report says the task of feeding a larger, richer world population, while simultaneously tackling climate change, is far greater than imagined. The World Bank estimates the cost of food staples has risen 83 percent in three years.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London's City University, said junk food will remain readily available, but good quality, nutritious produce could become scarce worldwide.

"There has been 60 years of silence on this issue," he said. "We haven't had any sort of overview of food policy since the end of the Second World War. I think we need to accept that food is once again in a wartime state."

Some Britons might find it a tad galling to take advice on food frugality from the prime minister, who along with fellow Group of Eight leaders dined on sumptuous feasts during their summit this week.

But the government says the public might find one solution by looking into their garbage pail. Britons throw out 4.5 million tons of edible food a year, or about $830 worth per home — wastefulness the government says contributes substantially to rising prices.

'If I throw away food I feel guilty'
Brown wants Britons to store their fruit and vegetables better to avoid waste and plan their meals more carefully. Some municipal authorities want to go further and increase taxes on those who throw away the most rubbish.

"If I throw away food I feel guilty — even if it's just a little bit," said Tania Carbonare, a 45-year-old jewelry seller at the Camden Lock market in London.

Those who remember Britain's 1940s "Dig for Victory" campaign to turn home gardens and soccer fields into vegetable patches say the past holds lessons for any food crisis.

Eggs, butter, meat and cheese were all strictly rationed, prompting an adventurous few to turn to squirrels or horses for protein.

"We didn't live very grandly, but we learned to make do with what we'd got," said Helen Trevena, 82, who recalled sweetening her tea with jam when sugar was scarce.

Britain's Women's Institute, launched in 1915 to help cut waste and encourage thrift during World War I, is once again offering classes on cutting food waste and livening up leftovers.

"People want those skills," said Ruth Bond, an institute stalwart from Cambridge in southern England. "Apart from anything else, it helps them save money."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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