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“Waste Not Want Not” – How can we reduce food waste?

By Jennifer Eddis

The publication of a recent report received media attention in the UK by making the alarming statement that an estimated “30-50% (or 1.2-2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches the human stomach”. 

The publication of a recent report received media attention in the UK by making the alarming statement that an estimated “30-50% (or 1.2-2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches the human stomach”. Where ‘food crises’, famine and hunger are becoming almost a common feature of the global media this report reveals a shocking reality about our global food system.

The report, published by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) highlights some important problems with the modern food regime. Amongst these is the fact that consumer culture in wealthier countries places less and less value on food, encouraging wasteful buying habits and allowing supermarkets to reject produce for being the ‘wrong shape’. Transforming attitudes to place more value and importance on our food and agriculture and to change retail and consumption habits could be a vital step towards reducing the amount of food that we waste. Thus it recommends that governments of developed nations implement policy to change consumer expectations and behaviour. The report also looks at the potential of engineering techniques that can reduce the environmental and financial resources needed for processing foods.  

A central claim of the report is that by improving “engineered infrastructure” it is possible to increase the efficiency of production systems in developing nations. Indeed the ‘vision’ of the report is of “improving the world through engineering” and to this end, the report recommends that firstly, the International Engineering community works with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to transfer engineering knowledge from developed to developing nations. It also recommends that governments of rapidly developing countries improve transport and storage facilities to minimise waste. However, it is necessary to unpack the assumptions that underlie this report in order to critically evaluate the judgments that guide these recommendations:

Firstly, the report presents agricultural development as a linear process, and one that is specifically geared toward mechanisation. This is not only clear in the way that it categorises nations (into developed, rapidly developing and developing nations) but also in the way that agricultural production is viewed as a global, rather than a local process, which requires knowledge to be transferred to those who are ‘less developed’.

Framing the problem in this way fails to question the current food regime itself, and in doing so it ignores the voices raised by a growing number of farmers, environmentalists and social activists who are protesting for a change to this agricultural paradigm. Instead its proposed solution is in fact what many see as the ultimate problem– increased detachment from local food production systems towards more global, mechanised and commercialised agricultural sector. This approach simultaneously negates the value of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) and whole livelihood systems of communities that are grounded in traditional farming systems. 

The report is also problematic in that it ignores the intersectionality of food, society and culture. The commercialisation of our food system has led to the power of agriculture and food production to be taken out of the hands of farmers, and placed into global agricultural corporations. Many argue that this has led to the breakdown of localised food systems. Arguably it is the globalisation of agriculture which then necessitates transport and storage infrastructure where the majority of the waste occurs.  

This begs the question, could we not think about reducing waste and resources by localising food systems, and by re-rooting them in local communities that have been increasingly excluded from the decision making processes? This vision does not apply to “developing” or “developed” nations differentially but it appeals more to the wider human community. It is part of the global voice calling for humans to re-connect with our food and environment.

The modernisation of agriculture has indeed increased aggregate food production; however the issue is that rather than growing food to meet the needs of local communities, it produces crops to sell on world markets. This commercialisation and industrialisation of food production is what many communities from all around the world are acting against. However this fails to be mentioned in the report by the IME. 
To use the slogan of the world social forum “another world is possible” perhaps it is necessary to imagine an alternative future based on localised and sustainable agriculture in order to mend what many consider to be a broken food system.