Up to half of all food is wasted: agri-industry and supermarkets are culpable

Between 30% and 50% of all food produced – 1.2-2 billion tonnes/year – is wasted or lost, a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) says. It argues that the waste is caused mainly by marketing techniques in rich countries, along with poor practice and/or insufficient investment in harvesting, storage and transportation.

Wasted foodThe report, published last week, highlights the vast amounts of farmland, energy, fertilisers and water swallowed up by the production of food that is thrown away or left to rot.

In my view the report points to an important conclusion: it is the way food is produced and sold for profit, in a process controlled by agri-industrial giants and supermarkets – rather than food consumption or human population growth as such – that pushes at the earth’s natural limits.

The IME says that in poor countries, “wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain”. Inefficient farming, and poor transportation and infrastructure mean that food is “frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions”. Almost all of what reaches households is eaten, though.

In rich countries, farming practices are more efficient, transport and storage facilities are better, and much less food is lost between farm and shop. But then “modern consumer culture” takes over: supermarkets often “reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm” – e.g. 30% of the vegetable crop in the UK – because of its size or appearance.

The combination of relatively cheap food and sales promotion techniques (e.g. bulk offers of perishable foodstuffs) encourages waste in the home, the report says.

A report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2011 put food losses at one-third of what is produced, or 1.3 billion tonnes/year, i.e. towards the lower end of the IME’s range of estimates.

The FAO researchers estimated the shares lost between farm and retailer on one hand, and in consumers’ homes on the other. They reckon per capita waste by consumers in Europe and North America is 95-115 kilograms/year, compared to 6-11 kilograms/year in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. The shares are shown in this table:

FAO table

Source: UN FAO, Global Food Losses and Food Waste (2011), p. 5.

The IME’s description of rich-world supermarkets’ behaviour is pretty damning. “Although mature, developed societies have substantially more efficient, effective and well-engineered market logistics, 30% of what is harvested from the field never actually reaches the marketplace (primarily the supermarket) due to trimming, quality selection and failure to conform to purely cosmetic criteria”, it explains.

“This can include such reasons as the packaging is slightly dented, one piece of fruit is bad in an otherwise perfectly good bag of fruit, or it is thrown out in the warehouse because it has ripened too soon.” It also blames supermarkets for waste on farms: they impose supply agreements under which farmers are penalised for delivering less than a set amount, but have nothing to gain from delivering more. The result is overproduction. The catering industry, needless to say, is also a prime culprit.

But the estimates of food thrown away in consumers’ homes were, for me, the hardest to understand. The IME puts much of the blame on supermarkets’ conservative “use by” dates, usually “driven by the retailer’s desire to avoid legal action”. “Buy one get one free”-type offers also encourage consumers to buy too much: the estimated average cost to households in the UK is £480/year per household.

The Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated, in a report published in 2008, that UK households throw away £10.2 billion/year worth of good food, and tried to analyse why. Most of what was chucked out was NOT past its sell-by date, and about a quarter of it was whole and unopened.

WRAP’s conclusions left me with more questions than answers. Households with children tend to throw away more food per head, which I would expect. But, surprisingly, older people (who, I would have thought, eat more regularly and go to more trouble preparing) waste as much as young people. And WRAP found little meaningful correlation between social background and the amount of waste.

As a socialist, I found the gigantic quantities of food thrown away by households hard to square with my knowledge of the impact of recent price rises, especially on poor working-class families. I can only speculate that there are two relevant issues:

■ An average UK family only spends 11% of its household budget on food, according to a recent survey by the Office of National Statistics. For most low-income working class families, this figure is surely much higher than 11%, and many of these are presumably more careful than average about waste. But on the other hand, for those of average or higher income, the figure should be lower: food is a minor expense compared to monstrous mortgages and/or the costs of travel to work, running a car, putting children through university, etc.

■ Still more important, perhaps, is that the commodification of food – not only its production but its preparation – has huge cultural effects. For most rich world city-dwellers, whether rich or poor, growing any substantial proportion of the family’s food is now a distant memory. For half a century, fast-food outlets and supermarkets have conspired to force more badly-prepared products down families’ throats. The criminal damage done by sugar- and salt-filled products to diets, and the epidemic of heart disease for earlier generations and obesity for the present generation, are side effects. The damage is compounded by the retreat of the welfare state, which in the past fed school pupils healthy lunches and even provided domestic science lessons (albeit for girls only, when I went to school).

Moving to food waste in poorer countries, the IME says that the proportion thrown out by consumers was far smaller. There, the big problems are waste on farms, and in transport and storage. Where, for example, fruit and vegetables are harvested by hand, the Institution says much waste can be reduced by picking produce directly into recyclable crates or boxes suitable for onward transport. Mechanised harvesting systems are good, but “must be supported by logistics and storage systems that match the capacity of the harvester”.

The report deals at length with storage. It points out that, due to inadequate storage and distribution, India loses as much wheat annually as Australia produces. Facilities must be “engineered to suitable standards, and connected to both the energy and transport infrastructure”, it says. In poor countries, lack of reliable electricity supplies (for refrigeration, etc) is a big issue.

The IME does not discuss in detail sources of investment, but it seems fair to conclude that the economic dominance of big agri-business, which has no interest in improving the output or marketing power of small farmers in poor countries, is a crucial obstruction. The IME also takes as given the growth of a global market in foodstuffs – in which cash crops flow from poor tropical-zone farms northwards, and small poor country farmers and forced to “compete” with highly mechanised temperate zone farms – and the cost in energy terms of the vastly increased volumes of long-distance food transport.

The IME surveys the sustainability of land, water and energy use in agriculture. In keeping with the consensus among agronomists, it argues that it is becoming increasingly difficult to expand land use without damaging ecological impacts.

As befits engineers, the Institution endorses drip or trickle irrigation as against comparatively wasteful flood or overhead spray systems. It raises the alarm about the fashion for drilling deep boreholes (which has become much cheaper in recent decades), to tap into groundwater, an effectively irreplaceable resource. It singles out for censure the government of Saudi Arabia, which has sanctioned ever-deeper boreholes but has no programme to replenish aquifers, and is scathing about international agencies that funded “a proliferation of boreholes” in the Middle East, Central Africa and southern Asia that “drained aquifers to the extent that only saline water could be produced”.

The IME, not surprisingly, expresses faith in engineering and science “consistently to deliver advancements” in food production. It comments that predictions that overall population would be checked by famine and disease, by Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century and Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s, have “yet to be shown to be relevant”. And it points out that by cutting down waste – i.e. with no additional pressure on land, water or energy from agricultural production – an extra 60-100% could be produced.

In my view, the extent of waste is a function of the fact that under capitalism, food supply is designed primarily to deliver profits to agri-business and supermarkets. If the priority was to feed people, money would be found to fund the straightforward irrigation, packaging and infrastructure improvements advocated by the IME engineers; criminally wasteful marketing practices would be ended by simple regulation or public scorn.

In addition to these stark political realities, there is an important theoretical point. According to the neo-Malthusian logic that powerfully influences discussions about food, the danger of agriculture becoming unsustainable arises from the growth in population – and, in particular, the improved living standards of that population, especially in China, India and other developing countries – that constantly increases food demand. The IME report highlights the fallacy of such arguments.

The report suggests that it is not food production per se that is unsustainable, but production of food for the distorted market, i.e. the commodification of food. It is “market mechanisms” that deprive poor country farmers of the means to invest in basic infrastructure and “market mechanisms” according to which supermarkets trash millions of tonnes of good food. It is a culture borne of commodification that cuts off urban populations from food production and miseducates people to think of food as a throwaway purchase, or a quick sugar fix, rather than a source of nourishment.

While agriculture certainly confronts natural limits to its expansion, it is the capitalist social relations under which it operates, above all, that account for the scale of waste and imperil its potential for feeding the current world population and more. GL.

► AN excellent summary of academic research on the sustainability of world agriculture, published in Nature magazine in 2011, is free to download here. The authors are leading researchers on the use of land and other natural resources, the ecological impacts of agriculture, agronomy and related issues. Their synthesis of a range of research, and their statistics, are probably as good as you can get. They say that:

■ Average crop yields increased by 20% between 1985 and 2005, “substantially less than the often-cited 47% production increase for selected crop groups”;

■ Globally, only 62% of crop production by mass is for human food; 35% is for animal feed and 3% for biofuels.

■ The land devoted to raising animals – including pasture, grazing and animal feed production – is an “astonishing” three-quarters of the total, and “the amount of land (and other resources) devoted to animal-based agriculture merits critical evaluation”.

■ Most agricultural expansion is in the tropics, where “about 80% of new croplands are replacing forests”. “Slowing (and ultimately, ceasing) the expansion”, particularly in the tropics, is “an important first step” to sustainability.

■ Irrigation accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, which is “of particular concern”.

■ Fertiliser use, manure application and leguminous crops (which fix nitrogen in the soil) have “dramatically disrupted” the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles.

The article cites similar figures on waste to those published by the IME, and urges that waste reduction be prioritised. And it makes other proposals – such as curtailing the expansion of agricultural land, and shifting resources from livestock feed to crops for human consumption – that the moguls of industrial agriculture would no doubt dislike. But it stops short of any overt criticism of agri-industry’s methods and priorities, or of the neo-colonialist economics that underpin the world food trade.

The article repeats without qualification the hotly-disputed assumption that food supplies need to be “roughly doubled” in the coming decades, and emphasises the importance of increasing grain yields – an obsession that radical development economists say masks the need to reverse the turning of economic screws on small farmers. The article also sidesteps controversies over genetic modification of crops, stating vaguely that solutions should “remain [?!] technology-neutral”. Nevertheless, it is a good introduction to the issues and to further reading.


2 Responses to Up to half of all food is wasted: agri-industry and supermarkets are culpable

  1. Alister Whitlock says:

    This timely reminder of the true nature of globalised ‘agribusiness’ is broadened 2 days on by emerging news of deliberate mixing of horse meat in ‘budget’ hamburgers at a number of British supermarkets, including market leader Tesco. It adds swindling to massive wastefulness, with echos of the days of sawdust in sausages and chalk in bread flour.

  2. Jacques Hughs says:

    The article makes some good points but I don’t think it really replies adequately to the standard arguments for capitalist development, exemplified in the “India needs Tescos” point of view defended in the Economist:
    Before the hate mail starts to fly, I should point out that I’m not defending this point of view! What it will mean is millions of small traders being turned into “surplus population”. followed in short order by millions of small farmers as the capitalisation of agriculture is accelerated by the buying policies of the big retailers. But one result of all this social carnage is that less food will be wasted! In fact less food wasted could equal more people going hungry. I think it is less a question of avoiding waste and more a question of how the incredible gains in labour (particularly agricultural) productivity seen in the last 200 years or so can actually translate into a better life for humans.

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