Don't wait for supermarkets to end food waste scandal
“All the world's nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe,” says Feeding the 5,000, a campaign group which is pioneering food recycling.
Tesco – the UK’s largest supermarket – admits that 28,500 tonnes of food waste were generated in its stores and distribution centres in just six months. And this is only part of the 15 million tonnes of food which is thrown away in the UK each year.
Is this a new and startling reality?
Well, yes and no. Years ago, I remember a speaker from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) explaining to pupils at my school that it was totally possible to feed all the hungry mouths on the planet with existing resources.
So the bigger question is why is it that instead of such an elemental problem being solved, in the age of super technology, humanity is still struggling with it?
Campaigners are trying to get supermarkets to revise their attitudes to their products – such as sending food past its “best-by” dates to charities and food banks.
That seems sensible, but relying on corporations for whom food is a commodity to be sold for a profit can’t solve the problem, which goes deeper than how food is marketed and sold.
At a basic level, we are alienated from the very substances that keep us alive. Instead of seeing the lettuce leaves, apples, meat, fish and bread as precious products developed from nature by our fellow human beings, most see them as little more than useful commodities.
We have long lost the connection with the land and soil on which they grow and the people who tend the crops. We prefer not to think about how “free range” eggs are collected by cheap labour or how animals are kept and slaughtered.
We don’t think about the end destination of plastic, polystyrene and packaging used to attract children to dangerous sweets and to make us buy more and more.
Felix Preston, in a briefing paper produced for the Chatham House think tank, calls for “a fundamentally new model of industrial organisation”. He proposes a “circular economy” or “CE”.
Instead of seeing “waste” as something simply to be discarded, a circular economy would “transform the function of resources in the economy”. These proposals chime in with the aim of a zero waste approach now advocated by some municipal authorities and governments as well as ecological campaigners.
Of course, the hope is that corporate capitalism will adopt the circular economy approach because it is good for business. CE would “offer huge business opportunities”, according to its supporters.
But what is needed is something different. The for-profit market-growth model must always prioritise its shareholder returns. Yes, some capitalists are much more far seeing than others. Yes, they may even believe the greenwash they churn out through their clever publicists.
But as the recent scandal with egg production in the UK shows, the bottom line for most companies is that they want to maximise their profits.
Preston’s proposals, he says, “requires systemic changes that go beyond the individual firm. They must be embedded in partnerships and networks of companies”, and would require a collaborative, information-sharing approach.
This is definitely not possible within the capitalist framework of production and exchange, driven by market share and maximising dividends.
Resolving the problem of waste is indeed possible. It makes the transition from a for-profit capitalist economy to a co-operative, collaborative, shared-ownership system more urgent than ever.
One of the greatest scourges of humanity – hunger and malnutrition – could be overcome if humanity could open up an alternative path where eating, like heating, comes before profit.
A World to Win secretary
22 October 2013