The interrelationships of hunger and waste: towards more audacious solutions?

Charlie Spring, Marie Mourad and Tammara Soma discuss the recent ‘Envisioning a Future without Food Poverty and Food Waste: Societal challenges’ conference held in Paraninfo, Bilbao from the 17-18 November 2015

Conceived as a “multidisciplinary deliberation forum,” the conference called for linking the complex issues of food waste and food poverty through the lenses of rural development, agronomy, engineering, environmental sciences, human nutrition, law and governance, sociology and philosophy. More than 150 speakers and participants came from all over the world, including us: three PhD students members of the “international food loss and food waste studies” group from Canada, Great Britain and France. Without trying to be exhaustive, the following wrap-up offers our own tri-disciplinary and tri-national perspective of the conference.

Food waste and food poverty: What? Who? How?

The conference covered a wide range of topics from raising awareness on the environmental impacts of food waste to building food systems based on human rights and social justice. Keynote speakers came from the academic world as well as multinational organizations and institutions (EU and FAO) or grassroots movements and non-profits. We found their presentations did a great job in presenting the issues of food waste and food poverty with their latest developments, but not necessarily in bringing new ideas for experts on the topic. Presenters, for their part, were mostly academics and divided in two parallel sessions. 12 minutes to talk, with 3 minutes of questions and answers, can be frustrating. We found that too little time was given to in-depth discussions and questions, even less answers. While we greatly appreciated the variety of speakers and participants, welcomed by a professionally held bilingual setting (Spanish-English, with simultaneous translations), we finally questioned the limits of interdisciplinarity as well and the relevance of linking food waste with hunger and poverty.

Key themes

A recurring theme was the values and practices of food charity in the context of economic recession and austerity policy. Karlos Perez de Armino (co-author of last year’s First World Hunger Revisited) drew attention to a lack of data on the extent of hunger but painted a contextual picture of degraded welfare services, high unemployment and 20% annual growth of the food bank network. He described food charity as ‘uncritical solidarity’, with food banks receiving large funds from the very banks that caused the financial recession that sparked the current situation. The state of food aid as a response to market conditions rather than evident need is another reason to question the assumption that it is the right way to respond to the conditions that produce hunger.

Other papers focussed more specifically on the ethics and practice of surplus food redistribution: how far can this address the ‘paradox’ of food waste coexisting with high levels of food poverty?

Elisha Valholias drew on Maussian theory to suggest the potential for unintentional harm caused to recipients of redistributed surplus. Despite attempts by redistribution organisations to negate the social difference induced by the giving and receiving of food, their need to appease donors and get rid of food before it rots may simply ‘downstream’ the problem of food waste or exacerbate recipients’ social exclusion. Mertxe de Renobles Scheifler suggested that the social supermarket might constitute a more dignified form of distribution than those based on contingent gifts, addressing the fact that the poor in late capitalism can be defined as ‘flawed consumers’, so that providing more affordable food through a ‘normal’ shopping model might reduce the stigma attached to receiving charity. However, the criteria to become a ‘social shopper’ introduce another source of differentiation for those who use them.

In another example exploring the power dynamics of surplus food redistribution, Tammara Soma drew on the work of Shove’s practice theories of consumption and Gille’s “food waste regimes” to draw attention to class dynamics in the production and movement of wasted food in Indonesia. She gave fascinating insight to the role of domestic labour, rising middle-class consumption and contrasting uses of technologies such as refrigeration in the sociotechnical processes that determine what is considered food, and for whom. The relationship between wealth and food consumption has been a key issue in wider discussions of food system sustainability e.g. rising meat consumption. For a resident of a nation in which domestic help often comes in the form of pre-prepared shop-bought meals, a recent film gives a nuanced perspective on ‘the consumer’, gender and class in places where middle-class lifestyles often involve employing domestic staff – .

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Tammara Soma concludes the need for a reframing of the mundane nature of food waste behaviours to consider a social justice angle

A view pervaded that given the quantities of theoretically available and edible food alongside ‘paradoxical’ food insecurity, redistribution must be a solution ‘for now’, and that research can highlight ways to make redistribution more effective, empowering or critical. EU FUSIONS project coordinator Toine Timmermanns highlighted partnership and coalition-building in the effort to standardise food waste measures and reduction targets. He described surplus food redistribution feasibility studies, but the focus on entrepreneurialism and efficiency could be said to prevent serious consideration of the risk of ‘entrenching’ surplus redistribution as a ‘solution’ to hunger (thus solving neither problem).

From food charity to food rights?

Graham Riches provided a critical counter-voice throughout, hinged by his plenary speech on the experience of decades of food aid in North America. He argued that it is both an ineffective palliative to hunger and inhibitor of political critique of the causes and structural solutions to the poverty that causes it. He argued for the need for strong government policy to protect the right to food. In this view, the right to food IS strong policy, and not the ‘moral safety valve’ of charitable gifts aiming to fill the gaps left by state withdrawal yet inadvertently prolonging the status quo.

Basque Country Ombudsman Manuel Lezertua gave insight into the gap between such ideals and the reality of the economic beliefs and market rules that prevent the right to food and argued for the ever-increasing need to challenge industry influence over political processes. We would have welcomed deeper discussion around the decline of the social state in globalised capitalism: the poor have little bargaining power in post-industrial nations and are frequently excluded from political processes that affect them. How might food waste and hunger advocates bring about such inclusion and democratic decision-making through their practices in diverse communities?

Food, waste and poverty: the global connections

A number of presentations drew attention to food systems governance and the financial insecurity faced by farmers in the Global South when producing food for wealthy nations whose corporate monopolies and profit motive may lead to rejected harvests and thus food waste whose costs are largely borne by the producer. Niki Charalampopoulou described Feedback Global’s recent investigation into green bean waste in Kenya, while Lana Repar’s research into paprika farming in Malawi explored the contrasting interpretations of ‘efficiency’ held by farmers and buyers that may lead to mistrust or poor workings of contract.  Again, power inequities inherent in a profit-motivated system of production and trade appear as the linchpin uniting the overproduction that leads to waste and poverty both near and afar. Marie Mourad’s presentation also highlighted the way that meaning and value in seemingly normative categories such as ‘waste’ shift according to the different motivations of different stakeholders. Attending to the dynamics and influence of business, social movements, government and other food system actors is a vital part of understanding both the complexity and the possibility of change.

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Marie Mourad

From problems to ‘audacious solutions’: towards food sovereignty?

On the whole, the focus was more on analysing the present and less on prefiguring futures. Given evidence of the systematicity of waste and hunger in capitalist food economies, how does one truly envision a future without them? How to decentre the monopolistic hold of our belief in business-as-usual, to curb the fears that radical change means even more hunger? Could food sovereignty provide such an ‘audacious solution’? Annette Desmarais grappled with the growing movement for a radically different food system, one where “there is no place for waste”. Food sovereignty has grown from its roots in the peasant struggles of Latin America to denote people-centred, rights-backed attempts to wrest control over food systems back to a larger community of stakeholders and to reconnect eaters with the soil, water and energy that becomes their food. Desmarais argued that our task as researchers is not merely to observe but to “proclaim loudly” and to enact new and different “ways of being and relating” if we are to truly tackle the endemic crisis of environmentally damaging, socially unjust food systems.

The philosophy of eating in relationship?

The conference was a smorgasbord of observations, if not a hotbed of practical ideas. The underlying debate around ethics and values at times surfaced in the form of more fundamental interrogations of our relationship with our environments. Philosopher Mickey Gjerris guided participants to reflect critically on the values we bring to our work but also to our relationship with food. He noted that food expresses the human/nature relationship most fundamentally. Indeed, it is where the two categories collide in dynamic ways. Gjerris drew on eco-philosophy to suggest ‘more-than-human’ ways of thinking and acting with food: beyond egoistic relations of possession and consumption to mutually-constitutive relations of ecological co-habitation, even the joyful potential of creating community through food.

In conclusion, I came away somewhat torn between calls to address current problems pragmatically; to ‘make do’ with what we have, and a deeper sense of unease around the scale and entrenchment of the commodification of food, to the extent that many proposed solutions to hunger and waste simply aim to re-commodify it, rather than address the root causes of that hunger and waste: over-production, lengthy and complex supply chains and the fact of food that is grown for profit rather than as an investment in the communities that eat it. Technology, consumer education and market-based solutions have a role to play but only as part of a broader shift in our philosophical orientation towards food and the soil, land, water and energy that creates it: one of co-dependence rather than domination.