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Food Waste: Anti-Consumerism as Political Agency

May 3, 2013
WWI Canadian Food Board Poster encouraging reducing food waste.

WWI Canadian Food Board Poster encouraging reducing food waste.

Blogging at Civil Eats, Chris Hunt  observes that one of the most fundamental changes we could make that would have a real environmental impact would be to reduce our food waste. Hunt notes that,

In the US, we waste roughly 40 percent of all the food we produce. This is totally insane – and it’s an environmental nightmare. Food production is resource intensive, requiring water, energy, land, soil, human labor and an elaborate web of production, processing and distribution infrastructure. When we throw away food, all these resources are squandered. And we pay for it! Every year, we trash about $165 billion worth of food, then shell out an additional $750 million to dispose of it, mostly in landfills, where it decomposes anaerobically, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. (You might be surprised to note that food waste is responsible for approximately 23 percent of total US methane emissions.) The extraordinary waste of food is even more lamentable given the shameful reality that 50 million Americans struggle with hunger every day.

The 40 percent figure is commonly cited and is pretty astounding. It comes from a report by the National Resources Defense Council that looked into the environmental impact of food waste. That report observed that U.S. food waste has increased dramatically in recent years. It also notes that waste occurs at every level of the food chain, from produce rotting in farmers’ fields, to food retailers who dispose of food that doesn’t meet consumer preferences for the right color or shape, to consumers purchasing too much food, only to see it rot in their refrigerators.

A campaign in the European Union has already been launched to reduce waste in the foodstream. The European Parliament adopted a resolution committing the European Union to cutting food waste in half by 2020 and designating 2013 as the “European year against food waste.” California has also been taking action to reduce the level of food wasted in the state. 

Hunt offers some basic ideas for reducing the level of food wasted in the United States. They’re pretty straightforward: plan ahead, make a shopping list, don’t over shop, eat what you buy, etc. On the surface, they seem like good advice. But I’d suggest while this represents  a fine starting point, as a solution its insufficient on two levels.

First, it doesn’t pay any attention to the waste that occurs before food reaches the consumer. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization observes that consumer losses represent the plurality of all food losses (see graphic below), but that significant losses also occur in production, postharvest handling and storage, processing, and in distribution and retail settings. In this context, focusing only on consumer behavior misses—quite literally—half of the picture.


Second, and perhaps more importantly, the focus on consumer behavior privileges particular kinds of activities over others. I’ve raised concerns before about transition from citizens to consumers (and taxpayers) as the fundamental unit of political agency. But here I think Hunt’s proposal might not be on as shaky a ground as some of the other consumer-based food movements. What sets Hunt’s ideas apart is their focus less on the act of consumption and more on reducing consumption (in an effort to reduce waste).

Left unresolved, though, is the question of how a movement to reduce waste and consumption would intersect with broader and more inclusive movements that prioritize questions of inequality and exclusion. How, for example, would Hunt’s voluntary simplicity movement (if I can call it that) relate to individuals who live simply through no choice of their own. Or to individuals who, because of the traditional framing of environmental issues, feel excluded from that particular frame. There’s a lot there to think about. 


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