Food waste, a new commodity

Food waste, a new commodity

by Eric Holt-Giménez

“A commodity is, in the first place an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies
human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether for instance they spring from the stomach or from folly makes no difference.” 1

That’s right, under the capitalist mode of production food is a commodity, just like any other. It doesn’t
matter if the food is fresh organic arugula or a Big Mac, teff from the highlands of Ethiopia or Cheez-
Whiz from Wal-Mart. It doesn’t matter whether you need it or not, whether it is good or bad for you,
whether it is locally produced or traveled from afar or whether it was corralled, caged, free range or led a
happy life; if enough people want it (and have the money to buy it), someone will turn it into a
commodity and sell it—even food waste. 2

Forty percent of food grown in the United States and around the world is “wasted,” generating global
concern about the social and environmental costs of food waste. On one hand, waste is food that is “lost”
to the eater. But food waste is also a by-product, a factor of production that has simply been used up.
The term waste is based on the Latin vastus, meaning “unoccupied” or “uncultivated.” When we think of
wasting food—our sustenance—we invoke the term as a verb, “to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly,
or to no purpose… to fail to make full or good use of.” But capitalism tends to treat food waste as an
adjective, “A material, substance or by-product eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required
after the completion of a process.” 3

Food provisioning uses 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, 50 percent of national land, and 80
percent of all fresh water consumed. Since 40% of our food is wasted, Americans throw away the
equivalent of $165 billion in resources each year. 4 Theoretically, reducing food losses by just 15 percent
yearly, could save enough to feed over 25 million Americans. This is why everything from composting
and energy generation, to food banks and the sale of “ugly fruit” is being thrown at the problem.

Some of these measures could help reduce some of food waste’s landfills, GHG emissions, and needless
use of natural resources, and that’s a good thing. But these proposals all focus on the effects of a wasteful
food system and ignore the primary cause of food waste: overproduction.

The defining characteristic of capitalism is its tendency to overproduce. The food system is no exception
(we’ve been producing 1 ½ times more than enough food to feed everyone for the last half century—and
still can’t end hunger…). Our cheap grain policy drives farmers to overproduce, leading to constant gluts.
This is bought up cheap by agrifood and energy companies that turn it into cheap food products, feed for
CAFOs and ethanol. The objective is to sell as much as possible. Similar trends occur in fruits and
vegetables. Low prices, standardization and the big lots demanded by retailers drives farmers to get
bigger and produce more, flooding the market. Even at our beloved—but saturated—farmers’ markets,
farmers select only the most cosmetically attractive produce for display and throw, give away, or compost
the rest. These farmers work on thin margins and tend to pay high rent for farmland that is close to urban
markets. 5 Food waste is a collateral effect of their market strategy for economic survival.

The value of food waste: from by-product to commodity

Waste in a capitalist food system is more than just the “cost of doing business.” It is a part of the value of
the food that is actually eaten. How? Because the labor and resources that were expended to create valuein the food value chain when producing food don’t magically disappear when part of the food is wasted.
This overall value is still in the product and is captured in the sale of the product. We call this capture of
value “profit.” If waste is brought back in to the value chain it came from (by turning it into a
commodity), it doesn’t bring in “new” value. Rather, it distributes the existing value in the food chain
across another product: recovered food waste. The question is, who is ultimately going to capture this
value? The farmer? The consumer? The food insecure? No, it is the big retailer… they’ve bought that
value to begin with and they want all of the profits that accrue from it. This is why, sooner or later, all
food waste start-ups will eventually be bought out (or driven out of business) by supermarket monopolies.

Waste, is endemic to capitalist overproduction. Turning food waste into a commodity (or donating it to
food banks) does nothing to address the cause of waste, (though it might create new economic activities
that depend on food waste for their existence). The key to ending food waste is to end overproduction.
The key to feeding people is not by commodifying ugly fruit, but by paying living wages and making
good, healthy food readily accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford it.

___________________________

1 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, 3 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1967).
2 E Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat (New
York: Monthly Review Press/Food First Books, 2017).
3 “Waste,” Oxford Living Dictionary, accessed January 1, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/waste.
4 Dana Gunders, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill”
(National Resources Defense Council, August 2012), https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.
5 Caitlyn Hachmyer, “Notes from a New Farmer: Rent-Culture, Insecurity, and the Need for Reform,” in Land
Justice: Re-Imagining Land, Food and the Commons in the United States (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, In
Press).

3 Comments

  1. Alexis on August 31, 2018 at 5:40 am

    Thanks for sharing this perspective. I’ve been a fan of your work for a while and really appreciate the intellectual rigor with which you approach this issue. Bravo for using facts, stats, and logic as opposed to inflammatory emotional appeals.

    It seems like this article was written as a follow up to the Phat Beets article preceding it. I don’t fully understand your relationship to Phat Beets but it seems to me that your argument breaks important new ground but also contradicts theirs. I’d love it if you could clarify. Phat Beets claims that without companies that commodify waste, food would just go to food banks. Based on my understanding of how farms, markets, and food banks actually work, as well as your analysis, this seems to be patently false. Farmers have no incentive to pick extra or ugly produce right now because they have to pay their laborers, and then pay to pack, ship and then market their produce. So companies that sell would-be waste are actually doing a lot to get food that might otherwise be left into the field and put bring it directly to people who can eat it. Why isn’t this a good thing?

    Moreover, if a “disruptive” solution like this were to scale to the point where they were using a significant percentage of the billions of pounds of wasted produce every year, they would also end up being one of the biggest net donors to food banks in the country. Food currently doesn’t leave the farm because of a lack of incentive and this new industry provides a clear and effective incentive. Wouldn’t this also be a good thing? Is there really no grey area between the wasteful overproduction we have now and a more sustainable system?

    I’m also a little confused about the end goal that you and your associates seek as well. Based on your argument that capitalism is the problem, isn’t it missing the point entirely to scapegoat one company (the most visible and successful example of an industry that includes dozens)? Shouldn’t they be attacking capitalism itself instead of just picking a straw man that fits into the convenient and overly simplistic narrative that tech companies = bad and big = bad? Isn’t attacking one company working within the system missing the point entirely if the problem is the system? What am I missing here? Moreover, is it wrong to ask how all of this anti-capitalist wrath be meaningfully re-directed towards a productive real-world ends instead of just used to fuel flames on the internet?

    Are you advocating for a great leap forward for American agriculture? Is this a call for a new 5-year plan? I’d love to hear what type of alternative agriculture you are advocating for. Phat Beets has given me a crystal clear picture of what and whom they’re against. I have a vague, intellectual sense of what you dislike about the current practice of selling food. I’m a firm believer that great people build something new, however, and don’t just tear down the work of others from behind computer screens. Say what you want about the “ugly produce” movement, but it has involved a lot of people working hard, taking risks, feeding people, and building things. What would you like to build?

  2. Maureen on August 31, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    I’m also confused by your approach. Here’s what I don’t get:

    1) If capitalism and overproduction is so bad, why not directly go after the agribusinesses that are overproducing? Based on your argument, companies like Dole and Grimmaway Farms are the problem, along with Walmart and Safeway. Why is your starting point attacking those that try to work to make overproduction less wasteful by finding a home for “ugly” produce? That’s like hating baseball and deciding to go to a baseball game and publicly shame the peanut vendors. Sure, they’re turning a profit off of an industry you find problematic, but wouldn’t it be a more effective argument and form of political action to attack the MLB directly?
    2) I get being contrarian as a way to get attention on the internet (as an East Bay native I see environmentalists, Democrats, and vegans do this all the time) but I’d encourage you to think about coming out publicly FOR something instead of just grabbing headlines as being against something. It’s the harder road but will allow for more meaningful cooperation and social action, if that’s your goal.
    3) Can you give some examples of how we can incentivize ending overproduction? Is this something that the government can do? Are individuals responsible? I doubt we’ll get there by internet essays alone, so I’m open to ideas. I agree it’s problematic. In the US we’re creating more electronics, clothing, and food than our population can use (just look at the rise of storage units, 1-800-GotJunk, second-hand everything stores, and e-waste) and yet so many go without. How do we make local agriculture and material minimalism something bigger than just niche nonprofits and Netflix specials?
    4) What role do agricultural subsidies play in all this? I feel like the elephant in the room here is the fact that the US government pays our farmers to grow the wrong things thanks to Nixon and Earl Butz. Most of our arable land is cultivated with crops that feed the processed food industry (via commodity soy and corn) instead of real people with fruits and veggies (confusingly called “speciality” produce in the industry). What if the government ended grain subsidies or paid farmers to grow things like carrots and broccoli instead? As I understand it we currently aren’t cultivating enough fruits and veggies to feed our entire population, hence why so many eat almost entirely processed food, which is troubling to say the least.

    Thanks so much for furthering productive discourse on the internet! I almost worked at Food First in college before ending up starting a community garden, so it’s nice to see that the organization is still asking big questions about our food system. I don’t agree with all of your conclusions and don’t think this issue is as simple and clear cut as you portray it and I have so many more questions than answers. That said, I appreciate you taking the time to share your opinions on such an important issue.

  3. Eric Holt=Gimenez on September 4, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    Dear Maureen and Alexis,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I hope you don’t mind if I respond with one post. Also, I’ll let our friends at Phat Beets speak for themselves. We’re trying to open a dialogue about the largely unconsidered negative impacts of turning food waste into a commodity. There are more blogs to come, and while Food First and Phat Beets share many views, we also come at the issue from different perspectives, so don’t expect congruence on all points.

    I gather that your concerns regard what you feel is unfairly directed criticism at food waste recovery because selling “ugly” produce is better than wasting it, and if capitalism is the problem why not attack the system rather than single out one player. You also ask how we could address overproduction directly and wonder what could take the place of our present system. Excellent! These are precisely the issues we hope to address in this enquiry on food waste.

    Let’s revisit the basics. Why do we overproduce food? Quite simply, because overproduction makes food cheap. That’s what big grain and big food companies, processors and retailers want—to buy things cheaply from farmers and move lots of volume. It’s also what all capitalists want because the cheaper the food, the lower wages can be set and the more consumers can spend on other products. Hunger is always the straw that breaks the camel’s back. With cheap food, health, education and welfare can be privatized without massive protest. Subsidies come into play because without them farmers would go broke. But subsidies follow low prices and overproduction, they don’t create them.

    In any case, our cheap food system—largely based on glyphosate-laced, processed junk, and hormone-drenched meat or pesticide-contaminated produce—is a mainstay for the entire economic system. Systemically, the cheapening of food also depends on the cheapening of the environment and the cheapening of labor, so food waste is just the tip of the iceberg of an unjust and unsustainable food system.

    Subsidize fresh fruit and vegetables? In California, the fruit and vegetable industry already reaps enormous water subsidies—and exports most of the product. There are 250 million acres of grains grown in the US versus 12 million in fruits and vegetables. The truth is, if subsidies helped convert just 10% percent of grain land to fruits and vegetables, the latter’s production would triple—creating a glut that would bankrupt all these farmers and drown the countryside in food waste.

    While cheap food its good business for the agrifood monopolies, it’s not so cheap for society. We all pay for the subsidies, the massive environmental damages caused by industrial agriculture, the contaminating CAFOs and over-fertilized fields (just look at the algae blooms in the Gulf this year), and the $250 billion+ in yearly health costs from the diet related diseases that primarily affect the poor and people of color. And of course, food and farm workers—many of whom are undocumented immigrants—suffer the costs of a wasteful system that cheapens their labor by making them live in a state of economic and political peril.

    The sale of ugly produce does nothing to address these issues and frankly, just helps keep the system in place. Not wasting is a good thing, but ignoring the system that produces the toxic waste in the first place hurts all of us.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. The policy tools to control overproduction have been well known since the New Deal. Parity, the notion that farmers should get a fair price for their product that allows them a decent livelihood would end subsidies. Environmentally-based production controls would end overproduction. Waste on the farm end would largely disappear. In our summer Backgrounder, “Parity and Farm Justice: Recipe for a Resilient Food System” farm leader George Naylor, arguing for farm justice, writes,

    With parity prices that ensure farmer prosperity, and reserves to ensure food security—marketing quotas can help solidify farm justice. Instead of aiming for the highest yield per acre, if a farmer was given a marketing quota of 10,000 bushels of corn on 80 acres, for example, the farmer might think, “How can I produce the 10,000 bushels without spending money on chemicals and fertilizer? Now I can conserve my land and maybe raise some grass-fed livestock on the land I don’t need to raise corn.” This farm is on its way to ecological farming—with positive impacts up and down the global food chain.”

    One of the positive impacts would be to eliminate food waste on the farm. Naturally, the agrifoods industry is against it. Giving full rights to farmworkers, land access to aspiring young farmers, and supporting robust and resilient local food systems in vulnerable communities would also address the inequities in the cheap food system in ways that the industrial sale of ugly produce never will.

    When we see venture capital start-ups open new ground for the supermarket industry—because the point of being a start-up is to be bought out by industry—we don’t see an alternative, or even a kinder, greener industrial food complex on the horizon. We see another commodity being developed in an inherently exploitative, wasteful, and toxic food chain.

    What are we for? We are for reforms and innovations that have the potential to be structurally transforming, rather than those that keep the existing system in place. We are for food justice, farm justice and food sovereignty—the democratization of the food system in favor of the poor. We are for the kind of community-grounded initiatives that Phat Beets has been advancing in neighborhoods struggling to take control over their food system. Please go to our website and review our publications. We’ve been writing about the problems and the solutions to hunger and environmental destruction for 42 years.

    If you want an in-depth understanding how our capitalist food system works and how we can change it, I recommend our latest book, “A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat.”

    best,
    Eric

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