Waste, consumption and the value of food

Fresh, ripe… ready to be wasted.

By Babak Moussavi

Every year, Americans waste between 30-40% of their food. The conservative estimate equates to $48.3 billion. Britons aren’t any better. In 2007, UK consumers threw away 6.7 million tonnes of food: one third of the total purchased, equivalent to £10.2 billion. That’s almost as much as the GDP of the Republic of Congo.

These figures come from an article in the latest Fabian Society Policy Report, Revaluing Food. The report is based largely on the results of a quantitative survey conducted by the Fabian Society into food habits and waste, with further commentary by academics, policy-makers and NGO workers. It makes for some uncomfortable reading about a neglected problem.

60% of people believe that food waste is a problem in the UK, which must be solved. Most people, however, believe that the solutions should not necessarily require much behavioural change, but more effort or responsibility on the part of companies or the government. And yet, the main reason people gave for throwing away food was that it went off too quickly: nearly 35% of people said this was one of the main barriers to reducing food waste (22% however, said there are no such barriers). When told of the climate change implications of household food waste – the damage being equal to what is created by 20% of cars on the road – the proportion of respondents who see it as a problem rises to nearly 70%. Britons do seem to care about the environment, but struggle to stop the proverbial low-hanging fruit from going to waste.

Food scarcity is no longer a pressing issue of social justice in the developed world, which probably explains the infrequent mention of its wastage and unsustainable usage as a social problem (an exception being a recent appeal by Save the Children to feed poor British children in the wake of biting austerity). It was not always like this, though. Food rationing formally ended in the UK in 1954, nine years after World War 2 had ended. British people did better than some on the continent in the aftermath of the war however: in his book Postwar, the late historian Tony Judt describes how in December 1945 residents of Budapest were officially provided with daily rations amounting to just 556 calories. The German average consumption for the two years after the war was 1,412 calories, but it was nearly half this figure in the American Zone. For some perspective, the NHS advises that the average man consumes 2,500 calories per day (2,000 calories for women) to maintain his weight. We manage it quite easily, demonstrated by the relatively new problem of obesity.

Nowadays, discussion of food injustice in Europe often relates to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Born out of Europe’s severe food shortages, the CAP was created to protect and promote European agriculture. As well as being a barrier to free trade, it does, unfortunately, have some highly regressive social consequences. A recent investigation by the New Statesman pointed out that ‘farmers’ (who do not need to farm) are paid according to the amount of land they own, not on their relative needs or productivity. As a result, in the UK, where a ‘cousinhood’ that can often trace its roots back to the Norman Conquest owns huge swathes of land, very rich people are given very large amounts of money. The average British household pays £245 towards the CAP, which may sometimes help small farmers, but often finds its way into the hands of wealthy aristocrats such as the Duke of Westminster, who received £748,716, or the Duke of Buccleuch, whose 240,000 acres earned him a tidy £260,273. Philippe Legrain calls for a land tax in his book Aftershock, partly because land’s distribution, especially in places like Britain, is so unequal. The regressive CAP merely adds to this injustice.

Judged dispassionately, the situation then seems very odd: we are paying large subsidies to rich people to grow food (or allow food to be grown on their inherited land), which we then very often throw away, mainly because we bought too much of it and it went bad. At the same time, there are still food shortages in poorer parts of the world, often culminating in mass starvation. Our food waste also contributes to climate change through the wasted energy use that goes into its production, which increases the likelihood that famines will break out in other parts of the globe.

Perhaps it is time for food to return to the policy table.

  1. Richard said:

    Duke of Westminster, who received £748,716, or the Duke of Buccleuch, whose 240,000 acres earned him a tidy £260,273. – The revenue he got from the land is not highlighted. – In summary, sounds like another reason to get rid of government farm subsidies in all of its forms.

    • Or just make sure they don’t have such regressive consequences!

  2. Alex Green said:

    I guess the issue is whether it is worth paying wealthy landowners to ensure that the English countryside remains English-countryside-ish. Can environmental aesthetics justify propping up fat cats? Discuss.

  3. The moral thing to do is to give the over production to the starving millions in the developing world. Thing is though the greedy corporate psychopaths that run our country and indeed the western world would never allow this as the food is still worth money to them even if it winds up in pigswill or a landfil site. The problem is that the world’s hungriest people don’t have the money to pay for it and go hungry not because the world doesn’t produce enough food, but because they don’t have any cash to buy it. I would like to see a motion put before the government in which overseas aid can only be given in the form of tangible commodities such as food, clean drinking water, tools and free infrastructure, not bribes to the government so we can carry on exploiting their citizens.

  4. Joshua Mellors said:

    Fantastic piece Bobby, maybe your best yet.

    As you argue, food must be put on the table, as well as land distribution. Perhaps the latter is the more fundamental issue? 0.3% of the population owns 69% of the land, and yes I believe much of this dates back from the Norman Conquest. Are you saying that in addition to the massive land rents that accrue to them from ownership, through the CAP they also get subsidised by the state purely on the basis of amount of land held? Talk about feudalism! One of the best things we can do would be to tax away these rents. At the moment labour and business are being rendered uncompetitive through numerous taxes just in order to subsidise this lot. In essence we’re paying them tribute.

    Funny how austerity is being imposed on those already struggling under the tribute we’re forced to pay and not touching these guys isn’t it?

    @Alex – we could easily keep it countrysidish under a public trust, but the public would also enjoy the wealth, rather than letting it be hoarded by a private few. Plus much of the agricultural land could be put to more productive use – as Bobby pointed out there is no link between the CAP and productivity.

    @Mark – We don’t actually need to give anything to the ‘developing world’, we just need to stop forcing them to destroy their own agriculture through liberalisation while massively subsidising ours.

  5. @joshua, who do you think is pushing that liberalisation, the sad thing is that historically most of these countries have been self sufficient until they started trading with the west and we began asset stripping their production. International banks have been buying commodities like grains with the money they’ve been given through quantitative easing, this forces prices to rise and manipulates the market into seeing a scarcity that isn’t there the result being that third world citizens try to provide these commodities through intensive farming practicies that in the long term damages their agricultural base. Their motivation is profit and enrichment (they can’t be blamed for this) but as in the west their journey to profit and enrichment pays little heed to the future. Enrichment today equals poverty tomorrow if you extract more than the land can supply and that land has no time to replenish itself.

    I’m not suggesting for one minute that the developing world is put in a time capsule and as such be prevented from developing. But it makes senses that whilst people are starving and we have an abundance of food we should be doing the human thing and giving it to them. If we did this their societies would become stable enough that we could then encourage those poor people to conserve their agriculture in a sustainable way that would guarantee their own food production for future generations and allow surpluses to be sold for profit.

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