Well done for fighting food waste, Hugh; but let’s take it a step further

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Posted Nov 23 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
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Have you seen any of the TV programmes about food waste, hosted by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall? He’s trying to highlight the amount of food that gets wasted in the UK – which is truly phenomenal, and a ridiculous waste of land, money, energy and time. Most of that food will not be organic of course, and so we will have removed natural habitat and doused the land with toxic chemicals and eroded the soil – for what? Just so that we can generate more waste. It made me feel a bit queasy, which was probably Hugh’s intention.

Here are some figures:

  1. £15 worth of food per week is wasted in the average UK household
  2. We waste about 15 million tonnes of food annually in the UK, half from homes and half from agriculture and retail
  3. About half the food thrown away by households is perfectly edible, and almost all of the food refused or thrown away by supermarkets is edible

He visited families in Prestwich in Manchester, many of whom were gleefully explaining how they throw away lots of the food that they buy, when it’s on its sell-by day, or when it’s ever-so-slightly on the turn. He explained that almost all food is perfectly fine to eat a couple of days after its sell-by date, and that those vegetables would make a perfectly good soup. He even showed them how to do it, because, well, they didn’t know how to make soup.

I couldn’t help thinking that a) they were going to slip back into their usual routine of throwing food away relatively quickly after Hugh had gone, and b) food is just too cheap. Its percentage share of our weekly spend fell continuously through the twentieth century. We don’t appreciate the value of food, and the environmental impact and effort involved in producing it.

He also visited small farmers who were having enormous amounts of food they had grown refused by supermarkets because of their absurd cosmetic standards. They won’t accept fruit or veg that doesn’t fit their strict criteria – and it’s not just knobbly, blemished or mis-shapen vegetables either. We were shown a conveyor belt with people carrying out completely unnecessary work, sorting parsnips, pulling out ones that were too long, too short, too top-heavy and for many other completely pointless reasons, other than that the supermarkets wouldn’t take them. One farm had to plough 20 tonnes of perfectly good parsnips back into the ground – in one week. They were reduced to tears at one point, and admitted to Hugh that supermarkets were putting them out of business.

So well done Hugh, for highlighting this problem, but I’m not so sure about your proposed solutions. Persuade people to waste less food in the home – yes, definitely. But there are two ways to approach the problem of supermarkets’ cosmetic standards:

  1. let’s try to persuade supermarkets to tone down their cosmetic standards
  2. let’s abandon supermarkets altogether

Hugh went for the former approach, but here are several reasons I’d prefer the latter.

  1. Supermarkets are legally-obliged to maximise returns for shareholders. That’s the bottom line, and is ultimately what they exist for. This is not a personal attack on people who work for or are shareholders of supermarkets, but they don’t sell food because they’re interested in food, they sell food for profit. Once we focus on their motives, we’ll find it easier to understand why they do what they do.
  2. That means that even if they sort out their cosmetic standards, they’ll continue to squeeze small farmers in the search for profit. They monopolise the food industry and can therefore dictate lots of things to small farmers, not just the appearance of parsnips. They also dictate prices. They will squeeze and squeeze because they can. If small farmers don’t have small retailers to sell to any more, then they are forced to comply with supermarkets’ demands.
  3. Farmers are often criticised for receiving government subsidies – i.e. taxpayers’ money. But farmers use that money just to survive – the profits are extracted by the supermarkets. So the entire system diverts taxpayers money to supermarkets’ shareholders, whilst putting small farmers and shopkeepers out of business.
  4. Supermarkets are not really capable of operating on a truly local basis. Their huge operations and economies of scale mean that ridiculous practices such as transporting English apples to South Africa and back to be waxed and polished (google it) are commonplace, with all the concomitant environmental damage that causes.
  5. If small, local shops completely replaced supermarkets, it would provide a lot more jobs, and those jobs would be much more interesting than stacking shelves. It would provide a much more personal service for customers too.
  6. Supermarkets suck money out of local communities to pay distant shareholders. They impoverish and deaden our communities, whilst adding a dash of ugliness and blandness.
  7. Supermarkets are part of the global corporate system that is inherently unsustainable and undemocratic. Any attempts to change it can only succeed until they start to reduce shareholder returns, at which point they will be ignored.
  8. If supermarkets do change their practices, it will be because they see the potential to increase profits. And if changes improve their reputation with the public, they may well attract more customers and increase profits, which will entrench the entire system and continue to increase the problems mentioned above.

Far better, I think, to try to think of ways to get rid of supermarkets altogether. The problem is not just confined to supermarkets either – Hugh visited fast food restaurants too, and found that three tonnes of food was wasted by KFC per year per store. However, they were applauded for beginning a scheme whereby waste food is frozen and collected by food charities at the end of the week. But come on Hugh, do we really want to encourage people to get their food from KFC? The problems above apply to corporate fast-food outlets too.

Let’s promote alternatives to supermarkets, and really, vegetables are the easiest place to start. Alternatives include:

See here and here for more on the pernicious impact of supermarkets.