Every year we compete to carve the scariest faces in our pumpkins, but the scariest thing is how much food waste is caused by this relatively recent Halloween tradition. The environmental charity Hubbub estimates we waste 14.5 million pumpkins around the 31st October, enough to make a bowl of soup for everyone in Britain.
The reason so many pumpkins end up in the bin is because most of us are too busy carving the perfect grimace to think much about what happens to the flesh we discard.
Carving faces in innocent fruit and veg has been around for hundreds of years. Traditionally in the UK we carved faces in turnips on All Hallows Eve to ward of the spirits of the dead. Indeed, where I live in Scotland many people still use ‘neeps’ to make their Jack O’ Lanterns.
The tradition was taken to North America, where the faces were carved into pumpkins or squashes, a food of the ‘New World’. As the tradition of Halloween morphed into the mixture of consumerism, Christian and Pagan tradition we know today, pumpkin carving became an important element of the celebration.
It took off in the UK in the 1990s and has gone stratospheric since Instagram created a platform for us all to show off our skills. Every year supermarkets are full of ‘carving pumpkins’, alongside a growing number of other US-inspired ‘treats’.
Yet, while more than half of us buy pumpkins to carve, only a third of people cook the leftover edible flesh. Hubbub estimate that more than 18,000 tonnes of edible pumpkin ends up in landfill sites every year, the equivalent of 1,500 double decker buses or 360 million portions of pumpkin pie. Interestingly, the Americans waste less of the pumpkin, as there is already more of a tradition of cooking with squashes.
This hefty amount of waste matters because food left to rot in landfill produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The UN estimate that up to ten per cent of manmade greenhouse gases are caused by food waste.
As COP26 starts on 31st October, perhaps it is a good time to use Halloween to do something positive for the environment? The emissions caused by food waste can seem like a small part of global greenhouse gases but on the road to net zero emissions, every step matters (even your breakfast).
This year why not try to make the most of your pumpkin? Even the most bland carving pumpkin can be made tasty with the right spices (try chilli, garlic and cinnamon) or try roasting them to bring out the flavour. Major retailers, including Co-op and M&S, have vowed to stock tastier pumpkins, rather than concentrating on the larger carving varieties.
Veg box schemes like Riverford or farmers’ markets offer all sorts of colourful options for carving. Often less common varieties can be tastier. The grey/blue Crown Prince is delicious and the Galeux d’Eysines is sweeter the wartier it is. Smaller Kobocha squash is easier to handle in the kitchen. And don’t forget the seeds of pumpkins can be roasted as a snack.
When your Jack O’ Lantern is finished with it can be put in the compost or food waste collection, or left out for the squirrels and birds. And when Halloween is over? Head down the shops and buy some of the pumpkins on discount that will otherwise go to waste.
COP26 is scary. There is no doubt we will be bombarded with statistics on the risks of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events if we fail to keep below 1.5C of global warming.
But ultimately Halloween is about chasing away the bad spirits and welcoming a change, hopefully, this time, for the better.
What is your favourite pumpkin variety to carve? And what are your best recipes to ensure nothing is wasted?