The hunger gaps

c: | f: /

Billions of tonnes of food going to waste? Sounds like a supermarket’s dream. So why the long faces guys?

There was a random news article today about food wastage. Hidden behind shock-tistics and half-arsed interviews with the ubiquitous experts/analysts who get wheeled out whenever mainstream credence is required, was the message that it’s my fault. Well, not specifically me, but us — the great unwashed.

Holy foodstain.

While they were lamenting the terrible state of affairs — and make no mistake it is a terrible state — and insinuating blame on consumers, the journalist pawns either forgot to mention or merely glossed over the following points:

  • Mention was made of the colossal percentage of food that is rejected by supermarkets because it’s not visually appealing. The implication was that the supermarkets are doing us a service by disposing of knobbly veg before I am horrified by it on the shelf. But nobody at ADSA or Tesco et al asked me if I was happy to buy an English russet with imperfect skin. My organic fruit and veg intake comes from Riverford and it’s always choc full of the mis-shapen reality called “nature”. Still tastes the same (actually, no, it tastes better).
  • Supermarket fruit and veg is available year-round. Conversely, my fruit and veg is seasonal so I get to enjoy different flavours at different times of year. Strawberries in December? No thanks. Seasonal offerings usually benefit from lower transport costs.
  • The environmental impact of overpackaging food wasn’t even touched upon. It’s not just food that supermarkets waste, it’s the associated costs of packaging it and in a lot of cases, shipping it to remote areas of the world to be packed under cheap labour and then shipping it back to sell. One of the supermarkets — I forget which one but suspect it’s Sainsbury’s — had the audacity to label one of their products “English butter” so you’d think it was supporting the local economy. Not quite. Upon closer inspection of the label it was from English cows alright but the raw material was churned in some other country, sent to Denmark to be wrapped and then returned to the shelves here.
  • Oh the weather, the weather. Last week some numpty was paid to warn us that due to the lack of British summer last year, prices of basic food provisions like anything wheat-based were going to continue to rise by up to 30% in the next few months. Cross-reference that with the amount of supermarket stuff imported from places that didn’t suffer bad weather and you’ll see it’s just lies spread to make us accept higher price points from the supermarket cartel. Guy Watson who writes the newsletters in the Riverford boxes each week has been necessarily bleak about the English weather wiping out huge swathes of crops; they had to dip into reserves and rely more heavily on imported produce than they’d have liked. Has the price gone up by 30%? No. Because they’re much closer to the farmers, build in contingencies and manage inventories far better than the wasteful big players who can afford to burn their GDP-busting profits.
  • Similarly, nobody even whispered about the impact of carving up agricultural land for useless biofuels so we can power the cars that drive us to work to earn a wage to pay the bank to live in a box we probably won’t own and use the same natural resources to heat it.
  • Bulk-buying is one way the supermarkets win custom. Three-for-two sounds good, but the reality is that the supermarkets have such huge buying clout that they practically force manufacturers to take the hit on their own bottom lines. If Morrisons want you to supply marmalade for 30p a jar and it costs you 70p to make it, their attitude is “supply it to us at that price or go elsewhere”.
  • Overstock wasn’t mentioned. Think of how many tins of Quality Street weren’t sold at Christmas or how many Easter Eggs aren’t sold in the run-up to Easter. The shelves are piled 1000 deep. They only have a limited shelf life so in the face of overstock, they either sell them cheap / in bulk, throw them away or (somewhat unethically) send them back to the manufacturer for them to throw away so it doesn’t look like failure.

The evil consumer

I admit we’re sometimes wasteful as a family and can improve. But all this negative reporting and pushing the blame onto us as black-hole consumers is misleading at best. A lot of the problems we face as an expanding population on an isolated planet cannot be solved by capitalism. Our whole way of life needs to be rethought, and that includes the role of the supermarket as provider.

As The Architect so eloquently puts it to Neo, “The problem is choice”. In order to compete in the global marketplace, to meet random environmental restrictions placed on us by political figureheads, and to be “successful” in the eyes of the stock market, one has to make a year-on-year profit. To do that, companies have to centralise and compartmentalise, even when common sense dictates that an exception would be better. Global logistics is such a cruel mistress.

Corporations love to boast about “consumer choice” as if it’s the cornerstone of their business model. Why? If a consumer craves a Cornish pasty at 2am in Aberdeen, let them crave. If they crave it enough, the choices should be:

  1. forget it and savour the real, local thing from, say, Ann’s Pasty shop at Lizard Point when next on holiday in Cornwall.
  2. make your own, selling them in your own town to like minded pasty-cravers.

Driving to the local supermarket and buying a four-pack of short-date Ginsters bolsters the supermarket’s profit margin and encourages them to do it again. When three of the snacks remain uneaten, who’s to blame? The supermarket for catering to the whims of a hungry Scotsman; the Pasty company for being too ambitious with their global expansion plans; or the consumer for demanding that the shop has one in stock at the time he wants it? The reality is probably a bit of all three.

Given the choice I will always select the local guy over the central service, or go without. Sometimes it’s not possible. But such crappy journalistic rhetoric without considering the facts from all sides threatens to make it an us vs them debate. It’s far from it: we’re all in this together and we need to make some hard choices about our lifestyles, the way corporate success is measured, and the demands we place on our planet from inside and outside the corporation if we’re to survive the next forty years.

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