Impolite Conversations around the ‘War on Waste’

by | 8 Apr 2016

I have few food-related memories of my childhood in Italy. One of these is certainly represented by my parents nudging me to eat all the food that was in my plate: no questions asked.

war on waste
It was the end of the 80s, and households in the Global North were for the first time seeing pictures of undernourished African kids in remote and ‘exotic’ places. “Think of how many children are dying in Biafra! You cannot waste food that would save them!” they were telling me, revealing that UNICEF and other aid organizations were properly doing their job in diverting my parents’ attention from local social inequality and creating the image of Africa as the stereotype of a poor, violent and underdeveloped country (yes, for most of the people at that time Africa was one big country) that needed to be rescued from itself. Thus, the idea of generating food waste irrespectively of another child’s food scarcity would make me feel ashamed and I would eat whatever I had in front of me, even if I could not really understand how that would have improved the life of millions of kids elsewhere in the world.

Almost thirty years later, the issue of food waste in the Global North has transformed from a private technique of moral persuasion into a matter of public intervention, with an increasing number of governments, regions, cities and private companies launching campaigns and regulatory reforms aimed at reducing the amount of food that the average citizen sends to the landfill. France, Italy, Massachusetts, San Francisco and Tesco (among others) appear to be all united in the ‘War on Waste’ and in the recognition of the need to find a second life for the million tons of edible food that would otherwise be sent to the landfill. Governments, regions, cities and corporations do not want to be impolite and they look for solutions to find a second life for food that would otherwise occupy space in landfills and release methane.[1. According to the FAO, Food wastage’s carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year. Most of this landfill methane currently comes from developed countries, where the levels of waste tend to be highest.]

Unlike the past, the main reason today for the renewed talk about food waste is no longer the famine that is affecting remote populations in non-well defined countries. Rather, in an era of cruel austerity, increased poverty, climate change and rising food insecurity in the Western World, the main moral triggers are represented by the line of people outside of food banks, the broadening of food poverty,[2. A 2011 report on food insecurity in Europe affirms that “Between 2005 and 2010, the proportion of people reporting an inability to afford meat or equivalent decreased by about 0·5% points each year (figure). In 2010, this trend reversed, rising from 8·7% in 2009, to 10·9% in 2012, and remaining elevated thereafter. Since 2010, the prevalence of food insecurity was about 2.71% points (95% CI 0·56–4·85%) greater than would have been expected on the basis of previous trends […] and corresponds to an excess of about 13·5 million people (95% CI 2·8 million–24·2 million) living with food insecurity.1Rachel Loopstra, Aaron Reeves, and David Stuckler, “Rising Food Insecurity in Europe,” The Lancet 385, no. 9982 (May 2015): 2041. Global methane emissions from landfill are estimated to be between 30 and 70 million tonnes each year. Most of this landfill methane currently comes from developed countries, where the levels of waste tend to be highest. and the link between waste, the intensification of dramatic climate events and the risk for the future of the agro-food sector.[3. Personal discussions with traders and large-scale producers of food in areas severely afflicted by climate change have highlighted that transnational actors are trying to mitigate the environmental effect of the food chain because they are increasingly afraid that they will be exposed to volatility, uncertainty of production and higher risk for their investments.]

As a response, most of the initiatives to tackle food waste consist in promoting or demanding the distribution of food excesses to charities, non-profit organizations and economically deprived situations.[4. In some cases, like the 2014 regulation introduced by Massachusetts and the 2012 Zero Waste Plan enacted by the San Francisco city council, anti food-waste initiatives also take into consideration climate change, the environmental consequences of food left decomposing and the energy potential of food. In these cases, regulation stresses the importance of composting, anaerobic digestion and incineration with energy recovery and rendering. Although it does not represent a solution for hunger, the transformation of food excess (mainly non-edible food) into a source of energy or future compost is therefore considered an appropriate way of avoiding the production of externalities and the re-introduction of food into a virtuous circle.] However, the similarities between my parents’ rhetoric and today’s actions against food waste are more important than the differences. Today as yesterday, we may be asked to think about the ethical (and environmental) unacceptability of food waste, but on the other hand we are not at all requested to question the roots of the food insecurity or to challenge whoever is proposing a food-redistribution policy, the project’s underlying assumptions or its long term implications.

Just-Eat-It_photo1In particular, public and private actors that are glorifying the reduction of food waste by redistributing it to poor citizens are convincing consumers that they are challenging an imperfection of our food regime and improving the life of thousands of people. Whether the latter point is true (at least on the short term these projects increase the availability of food on people’s tables), governments and corporations are asking all of us in Western countries not to think that food abundance and food scarcity are intrinsically related. We are prevented from seeing them as the two sides of the same capitalist food regime, of its being inherently based on the generation of excess output (and therefore food waste), the commodification of food (that can be accessed only by purchasing it and therefore will not leave the supermarket unless bought) and the exploitation of cheap inputs (mainly labor, that is often kept at the limits of the poverty line). In other words, when we politely accept the ‘war on waste’ as a moral act, we accept that the action of throwing food away and the existence of impoverished consumers are imperfections of an otherwise perfectly working food regime, not the systemic byproducts of the dominant system of production, distribution and consumption that cannot be addressed unless the whole framework is reconsidered. All of this despite the fact that it is generally understood that an economic model based on market expansion, increased consumption and concentration of resources may lead to food waste, economic inequality and an increase in malnourished people.[5. Per capita food wasted by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg/year, while this figure in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia is only 6-11 kg/year.]

Focusing on some of the food-waste initiatives that have been recently advertised in Europe both at the regulatory and Corporate Social Responsibility level, it is hard to identify attempts to challenge the systemic inequalities that characterize the food regime or any critical consideration of the fact that redistribution of food waste to non-profit and charities may not represent the long-term solution for excessive production, food poverty and environmental degradation. On the public side, the Italian Parliament is proposing a new regulation that facilitates the distribution of non-consumed food from all the levels of the chain to non-profits and that consists in the loosening of the safety regulations and on the possibility of an economic incentive. As a matter of fact, nothing in the proposal represents a serious attempt to tackle excessive production or of the generation of food waste at all levels of the chain: rather, the bill would provide an economic reward to those actors (public or private) who will decide to dispose of excessive food in favor of people who would hardly have access to these products due to economic constraints, i.e. would not be potential consumers.

France, on the contrary, has followed a model similar to that of Massachusetts and decided to impose an economic sanction to large-scale retailers that fail to establish a system of food-waste distribution in favor of underprivileged communities.[6. Loi n° 2016-138 du 11 février 2016 parue au JO n° 36 du 12 février 2016.] However, in order to make the scheme effective, the amount of the sanction should be calibrated to offset the economic advantage that retailers make through their large-scale purchasing and full-shelves policy, i.e. being capable of forcing retailers to reduce the amount of food that they purchase and limit practices that are inherently linked with the production of food waste. Moreover, such a law represents an incentive for retailers to increase consumers’ consumption (for example by launching promotion schemes, lower prices, etc.): without proper control and education, the law may simply generate the perverse effect of shifting the production of food waste from the retailers to the consumers, where waste reduction and proper management are harder to enforce. Finally, the law is limited to the private sector and only concerns retailers, so to fully obliterate the problem of excessive production and the fact that almost 1/3 of the food that is grown in France is left unpicked or not introduced in the food system for aesthetic or economic reasons.[7. There are no official data on food loss that occurs at the level of production in France. Two of the most cases in France concern the destruction of 40 tons of ‘coquilles Saint Jacques’ and 20 tons of codfish in 2009 because of the lack of buyers due to the higher prices compared to competing products obtained in Spain. AFP, ‘Poissons Cherchent Acheteurs’, Le Telegramme, accessed April 6, 2016,]

The concerns become even stronger when it comes to private sector initiatives. To give some examples, when large-scale retailers in the UK start selling “wonky food” at a lower price or conclude a voluntary and sectorial agreement that they will cut food waste by 20% by 2025, they are certainly reducing the environmental impact of landfills and feeding impoverished communities. However, they are not reconsidering their purchasing strategies, better calibrating the amount of food purchased, changing the aesthetic parameters of their ‘normal products’ or stopping the replenishment of shelves when they look empty. Moreover, they are not exercising any pressure on the way in which production happens (although some of the retailers pledge to support a reduction in water consumption in the food chain), nor the amount of food that is not purchased because of high prices or aesthetic reasons, and are not taking into consideration the geographical origin of the food they sell and the carbon footprint that is generated to bring certain foods to the consumers (think of exotic fruit or highly processed food). Finally, because corporations are helping to feed the food insecurity, they are not questioned about the fact that they are expanding their market share (by making money out of consumers who can only afford cheaper unaesthetic products), distributing free food to clusters that would not otherwise have the opportunity to buy it (and therefore they are not running any loss), or obtaining public visibility through the internalization of the environmental externality generated by their own purchasing strategies.

screen-shot-2015-05-20-at-11-59-01-amOverall, it appears that the problem lies in the diffused conception of food waste as a resource that can be reused (in the form of food, animals feed or biodiesel): because it is possible to find a second life for food waste, including its use to find a temporary alleviation of people’s food insecurity, the priority is not any more the redefinition of the food regime in a way that avoids the generation of food surplus, but the identification of the best way to reintroduce waste in system and produce a ‘circular economy’. As a consequence, the productivist, extractivist and environmentally unsustainable nature of the transnational corporate food chain is not challenged, but transformed into a virtuous source of well-being for the ‘less fortunate’ and the environment. In other words, the inherently positive attitude towards the reuse of food waste and the use of excesses to feed those who are food insecure in particular, limit the possibility to express critical consideration. Of course, I am not claiming that food charity and recycling projects do not represent an important and often essential short-term intervention to mitigate the schizophrenia, unsustainability and ideological commodification of the Western food regime. However, if a real transformation is sought, it is important to get out of the comfort zone of the dominant discourse and realize that there are several reasons why a food-charity and food-recycling based struggle against food waste may not be effective in the long term, if not counterproductive.

To provide some trajectories for an ‘impolite conversation’, I think it is important to realize that the generalized enthusiasm around the ‘war on waste’ makes us overlook that: public authorities and corporations are legitimizing the creation of two class citizenship (one that has access to proper food and one that is fed with waste) rather than offering solutions to narrow social inequality;[8. For an interesting analysis of how food charity reduces social security and strengthens inequality, see eg Tiina Silvasti, “Food Aid – Normalising the Abnormal in Finland,” Social Policy and Society 14, no. 03 (July 2015): 471–82.] international law requires States to protect, respect and fulfill the right to food of their citizens, a binding obligation that cannot be dependent on the will of the private sector and on the amount of food that is not consumed by ‘first-class’ citizens; as for food aid, an excessive reliance on charity and food banks can lead to the vicious circle of dependency; the availability of food (i.e. waste) to feed people does not imply that the food is qualitatively and nutritionally adequate, but no consideration is made about this point in any of the regulation of private schemes, as ‘second-class’ citizens should be happy to receive food and should not question its healthiness; redistribution often happens in the urban cnontext once food has already been taken away from the production sites, which are often equally food insecure; providing food (i.e. waste) to impoverished families and individuals without tackling the roots of poverty and marginalization is a way to deal with the symptoms of a latent disease and not to address its causes.

Had I been (more) impolite as a kid, I should have refused eating the extra food that I had in the plate. Not to be disrespectful of hungry people all over the world, but to challenge the micro-food system of my home, the potential production of food waste, and the idea that it is enough to dispose of the food excess (by eating it or composting it, as is fashionable now) to make the world a better place. Today, being older and less worried of getting out of my comfort zone, I consider important to question whether the ‘war on waste’ is nothing but a patch, a bandage on the eyes of the West that makes us think that it is enough to harness the potential of food waste and create virtuous circle. On the contrary, the Global North as the main socio-economic region responsible for food waste in the world has the legal and moral obligation to commit to policy reforms that understand the systemic reasons behind food insecurity and cure them. Food laws and policies have to undo the expansionary and quantity based trajectory of our food regime, recognize everyone’s dignity and force the distribution of food long before it becomes waste, stop utilizing edible food to feed animals or energy generators, and halt the intensive exploitation of the planet and the environmental footprint of our meals. Only then, when we do not feel comfortable and polite with the false solutions that are proposed, could we start moving towards a real food transformation.

Tomaso is an Assistant Professor in International Economic Law at the University of Warwick School of Law. In his academic research he focuses on the role of lawyers and legal structure in constructing and consolidating the transnational corporate agri-food chain based on commodification, inequality, multiple exploitations, excesses, unsustainability and individualization. His Utopia is a future where food is a commons and in his most recent works he discusses the possibility of commoning the food regime and the normalizing effects of eco-labeling.

  • 1
    Rachel Loopstra, Aaron Reeves, and David Stuckler, “Rising Food Insecurity in Europe,” The Lancet 385, no. 9982 (May 2015): 2041.


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