Menu Close

Food waste is the symptom, not the problem

“Burgerisation” has made waste as common in the food system as take-away wrappers on streets. Niall Carson/PA

Foundation essay: This article on food waste by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London, is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

Modern societies have a problem with waste. The entire economy is wasteful, a distortion of needs and wants. It overproduces and we under-consume - that’s what the current financial crisis is about. Debt was dangled in front of us urging us to consume. Then when the debt mirage evaporated, crashing us back to reality, consumption nosedived. Meanwhile the public sector is being cut to bail out the banking debt. Result: human waste in the form of unemployment, squeezed wages, uncertainty, rising inequalities.

In food, the lunacy of this situation is visible even more starkly than in economics. In nature, there’s no waste. When an apple or fruit or leaves fall from a tree in the woods, the rotting process folds back the embedded energy and matter, dissolving the “waste” into other lifeforms - worms, insects, microbes - which replenish the soil. If I drop an apple in the city, it sits on the tarmac as waste, a potential problem for someone to attend to.

At a large scale, this illustrates our societal problem with food. The food system overproduces, wraps food in packaging, embeds energy, chucks away mountains of usable food, and produces food residues. All this is done on such a massive scale that the waste we’ve made is too dangerous even to feed to pigs, one traditional solution.

The food industry is aware of its waste problem. The voluntary Courtauld Commitment, struck in 2005, has cut millions of tonnes of household and supply chain food and packaging waste – savings worth billions of pounds. Its third phase aims further to chip away at the estimated seven million tonnes of food thrown away each year. But still the waste keeps piling up – why? Because waste is not the problem; it is the symptom.

Organisations like Wrap and its “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign have spent more than a decade arguing that food waste is an iniquity that should be stamped out. Their argument is that waste is inefficient. It is. But politicians and scientific advisers said the same thing in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, waste was associated poor storage on farms that left crops to rot. If only we cut that waste, scientists at the time argued, we could feed the world. They argued persuasively that better storage, refrigeration and transport could help, alongside massive investment in newer farming techniques and technologies, particularly fertilisers and mechanisation.

The food revolution they designed worked. After the Second World War food supply increased. Farm waste dropped. But so remarkable was the food revolution right down the food supply chain that the combination of economic signals (such as price), product standardisation, marketing, consumer de-skilling and consumer demand have created an over-supply situation where in much of the developing world “old style” farm waste continues, but in the developed world – our world – “new” waste proliferates. No wonder policymakers are both latching onto the issue today (it suits the moral agenda) and find it difficult to sort out.

Two Worlds of Waste

There’s one new feature in all this, which threatens the neo-liberal market agenda. Consumers are being subtly blamed. The customer who was sovereign is now wasteful. Privately, many in the food industry know consumer behaviour patterns must change as climate change and other long-term drivers kick in. But no one is saying that overtly yet, except some academic critics and civil society campaigners. In truth, society is not clear about what it wants from its food.

In the developing world, consumers waste very little. When your entire society is poor, you conserve and manage resources. But in our rich societies, characterised by resource wealth – cars, housing, infrastructure - even if you are cash poor, the entire food culture is factored around waste. It’s rightly pointed out that it’s wrong to blame consumers for buying too much bagged salad or throwing food away if the label carries an unrealistic best-before date, or if consumers aren’t taught how to cook, if supermarkets peddle BOGOF deals and price offers, and if the entire food sector spends hundreds of millions on advertising. Which confectionery firm doesn’t entice kids to consume by their clever games and interactions? The result: health waste.

It’s no wonder the entire food economy is a mess. There’s a structured mismatch between production, consumption, environment, health and social values. The simple principle of recycling waste back into nature becomes a heroic task.

The result is that avoidable waste - such as crops rotting in the field, pest infestations, lack of infrastructure and investment – is as prevalent now in 2013 in the developing world as it was in the rich world of the 1930s. Africa, given the right investment, could raise output many times over, although climate change, water stress and geopolitical turmoil add uncertainties. Meanwhile, in the rich world hypermarkets are awash with a dizzying variety of food, at unprecedentedly low prices. But here too, uncertainties loom: farmers and their land are squeezed in a contractual lock-in to the giant retailers who gate-keep the system. And bad diet now adds spiralling healthcare costs to economies.

The cost versus the value of food

Britain has a peculiar variant of this general problem. It is a parasitic food state. Britons live quite a lot off other people’s land and resources and grow less than 60% of the food we eat, according to Defra’s latest UK agricultural statistics. The gap between what the UK imports and exports is now a huge £19.4 billion annual deficit. That means a lot of other exports have to be made and sold abroad to pay to feed ourselves - food like fruit and veg which we could and should grow. Our land use is bizarre. An estimated 40% of cereals grown on prime land is fed to animals to make cheap meat. Animals are poor converters. Meat ought to be exceptional food not ubiquitous. The burgerisation of food culture is systemic waste.

This is all complex. There are no easy messages in this analysis. But that’s what political processes ought to sort out. By any terms, the current food system is unsustainable, but the implications are immense. After 70 years of investing in one food system, we now need to rapidly change - this is both an economic and cultural challenge. As a society, whereas once we were aware of the worth of our food, now it has become ubiquitous fuel. we never stop eating and thus wasting. It’s everywhere – any 500 yard stretch along a city street will take you past dozens of feeding stations. Bad food joints circle schools, targeting kids, setting expectations. Media pour out messages: buy me, eat me, like me. The problem is that when something becomes cheap or ubiquitous, it gets abused and taken for granted.

Back to that apple on the tarmac. WRAP and its Courtauld Commitments follow some heroic work done over the last 25 years by small civil society organisations and pioneering local authorities to introduce and mainstream municipal composting, trying to complete the ecological cycle. But these efforts are not mainstreamed, and mass food systems turn a simple biological cycle into Byzantine complexity. This isn’t helped by lack of political cohesion from government, which is happy for initiatives to make the food system more sustainable to remain at arms’ length. The food system needs firm and clear frameworks and goals, and not just a focus on one aspect - waste - as though it can be separated from the rest. Regulations can work - the EU landfill tax worked, levelling the playing field and penalising those manufacturers and consumers who don’t care what happens to their product after they’ve used it.

The good thing about the food waste issue is that it raises fundamental questions. One is about costs. Since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the pursuit of cheaper food has been hard-wired into British politics. Bringing prices down from when working class households spent 50% of income on food enabled people to eat better. But now we over-eat.

Back in the 19th century, manufacturers wanted cheap food to get cheap labour, food being a factor in labour costs. Now, we need to ask how cheap is cheap? If cheap food encourages unhealthy eating, and dumps costs on the environment and healthcare, is it cheap? If a food system is as wasteful as ours, what does that tell us? Blaming consumers for waste is like saying “We have the right food system, just the wrong consumers.” But of course, blaming consumers is much easier for politicians than fixing a broken system.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 183,900 academics and researchers from 4,966 institutions.

Register now