Waste Not, Want Not, and Food Politics

Food waste appears to be a hot new topic this year, which is actually something I am really excited about. Not food waste—I find the volume of food wasted in the West horrific—but that people are talking about it, and more than that, thinking about ways to directly address it, rather than trying to shovel the problem into the landfill, which is what we’ve been doing for years. Is it possible that we might finally initiate a new era when it comes to food, and start dealing with it like the precious resource it is?

Sadly, a lot of the headlines about food waste paint it with an overly broad brush. They talk about food waste overall (nearly one third of food produced worldwide is tossed) being a huge problem, instead of taking a closer look at who is wasting food, how, and why. This information is far more revealing than generic statistics that offer a global perspective on the issue. Because, yeah, globally we waste a lot of food, but that’s not distributed equally across the residents of the global as a whole, and we shouldn’t act like it is.

And we need to distinguish between loss and waste, which are separate issues. Loss occurs during food production, while waste is a consumer problem. In the West, consumer waste tends to be the bigger problem, while food production is more efficient, leading to less loss. In the Global South, problems with the food supply including problems with transit, refrigeration, harvesting, and more create more loss, but consumers are less likely to waste their food. This illustrates stark disparities in the food system from the very start.

It shouldn’t come as a big shock to learn that food waste is a more prominent problem in the West, which is throwing away more food than some regions in the Global South produce annually. But even within the West, there are significant disparities, because let’s not forget that at the same time we are throwing away up to 115 kilograms (253 pounds) each in food annually in Europe and North America, we’re also experiencing food insecurity. There are people who are struggling to eat, and are having trouble meeting basic caloric needs, even in the wealthiest communities.

Low-income people across the West have trouble feeding themselves for a variety of reasons; high food prices, inability to access stores, trouble getting time to cook, and simply not enough money coming in to pay for food. Many of them are people of colour, and people like immigrants, disabled people, women, and queer people are at even more risk of being hungry because of their axes of marginalisation. It seems absurd to think of a world in which dumpsters full of food are bordering communities where people are surviving on government cheese and stretching out their peanut butter and bread until their next pay day or benefits disbursement.

The West has very high standards for food, and a specific view of what food should look like. Grocery stores throw out food that doesn’t look quite right or is close to an expiry date (even though such dates are highly conservative, and thus the food is perfectly safe). Meanwhile, restaurants pick through their deliveries with care to select the most attractive items, and throw out food throughout service, between plates being sent back, diners who don’t finish, messups in the kitchen, and more. While more grocery stores and restaurants are subscribing to industrial composting services, that’s still wasted food, not food that went into the mouth of someone who needed it.

The profound imbalance between food production and food waste stresses the whole food system. If people are throwing away some 40% of food (as in the US), that means that huge amounts of food are being produced for no reason. That requires water, labour, fertiliser, and more, all to produce food that no one will ever consume. This in turn really stresses the Global South, which is producing vast volumes of food for the West, sometimes focusing on food production for us at the cost of their own food systems. By reducing the amount of food we waste, we would be able to reduce the amount of food we produce, which would in turn mean we could focus on efficient and effective methods of food production, and fight hunger by combating senseless waste.

With food waste getting attention, I suspect that many ancient tricks used to cut down on waste and stretch food will become trendy, and we’ll see yet another example of appropriation of poor skills without a nod to their originators. This tendency to take from poor communities without acknowledging origins neatly cuts people out of their own history, and allows outsiders to position themselves as authorities; suddenly there will be a ‘right’ way to do things that people have been doing for centuries, and someone will undoubtedly find a way to commercialise them, bringing them full circle into the capitalist fold.

This creates interesting and frustrating tensions. Even as I want us to fight food waste and come up with ways to make the food system more efficient, to get food into the mouths of people who need it, and to relieve stress on global agriculture, I don’t want us to forget the origins of the practices we’ll be using to help combat food waste. And I want us to be aware that we also need a fundamental shift in attitudes about how food is supposed to look. We need to accept that produce comes in lots of shapes and sizes and that none are bad, that you can cut mushy bits out of apples and still eat them, that carrots are great even when they’re crooked. We need to embrace the individuality of food, and indicate that we as consumers are ready to handle funny-looking products that taste just fine.