Food waste and anarchic capitalist production

Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted or lost every year.

Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted or lost every year. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), this amounts to approximately 1.3 billion tons. And yet, in 2014-2016, around 795 million people around the world were suffering from chronic undernourishment. States have tried to stem the flow of waste through regulation and charities have launched food redistribution schemes to help people living in poverty. But their efforts are mostly in vain. This criminal absurdity flows from the anarchic production inherent to the capitalist mode of production. BRIAN HENRY reports.

Western overconsumption

Unsurprisingly given their much higher consumption levels, the proportion of food waste is highest in what are defined as the rich ‘western’, ie imperialist countries, while developing countries are more likely to suffer from food loss.

Food lost (that is, between production and retail) and food wasted (between retail and consumption) is estimated to amount to $680bn a year in industrialised countries and a further $310bn in ‘developing’ countries. Fruits and vegetables, because they are perishable, have the highest wastage rates of any food, with roots and tubers not far behind. Almost a third of the world's cereals are each year lost or wasted. The rate stands at 20% for meat and dairy, and 35% for fish.

Every year, consumers in North America and Europe waste almost as much food – standing at 222 million tons – as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115kg a year in Europe and North America. By comparison, consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11kg a year on average.

As we have argued in our articles about the ‘sixth mass extinction’[1] and plastic waste,[2] this once again shows that overconsumption is driven not by population size but by purchasing power. The only way to prevent this is to build a classless world where a wealthy insatiable elite does not exist, consumption is shared equally and limited to what is needed for a decent and healthy life.

Food charity WRAP estimates that 1.9 million tons of food is wasted by the food industry every year in the UK alone. It says that ‘at least 400,000 tons of this could be redistributed to those in need’ – 8.4 million people in the UK struggle to put food on the table.

Food imperialism

While agriculture-related waste is consistently high across the world, developing countries in Asia and Africa are likely to see a higher proportion of food wasted at the post-harvest and processing stage due to lack of infrastructure or poor equipment. This underdevelopment can be put down to the fact that their wealth and natural resources are plundered by imperialist nations.[3]

This takes many forms, but is especially direct when it comes to food. For example, as we reported in 2009:[4] ‘Sainsbury’s invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada to take over and convert most of its good quality agricultural land to organic production. Sainsbury needs to ensure a ready supply of high-quality, “healthily” grown bananas, passion fruit, coconuts and mangoes for its stores. Caribbean agriculture is in dire straits, unable to compete in a global farm economy increasingly dominated by imperialist multinationals and policed by imperialist institutions like the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO). Caribbean small farmers are being driven off the land and rural communities are destitute.’

The overaccumulation of capital in imperialist nations compels them to export surplus capital overseas to take advantage of cheaper production and labour costs, and so domestic investment wanes. This explains the failure to invest in new crops and smarter growing systems in Britain, and the resultant stagnant productivity of British farms, with the country’s self-sufficiency falling from 78% to 60% between 1983 and 2013. It is therefore clear that socialist farming methods are needed to restore self-sufficiency and end the imperialist economic relations that underdevelop non-imperialist countries.

Redistribution schemes

Food waste has become such a big problem that sections of capital have started to pursue redistribution schemes. WRAP, a leading resource efficiency charity which promotes a ‘circular economy’, redistributes surplus food to homeless and other social charities, working with retailers and manufacturers, logistics and redistribution organisations, together with industry bodies. Food redistribution has increased by 50% in the past two years.

In December 2017, a £500,000 government Food Waste Reduction Fund was announced ‘to support the redistribution of quality surplus food to people in need throughout England’, distributed to eight charities and not-for-profit groups. WRAP also aims to increase diversion to animal feed, preventing around 450,000 tonnes of waste by 2025.

In June, Plan Zheroes, an ‘online food redistribution initiative’, redistributed its 100,000th meal from London’s Borough Market. Neighbourly, which describes itself as a ‘social platform’ has redistributed 3.22 million meals and almost six tonnes of sundries such as cleaning and laundry products, toiletries and pet food, since its launch in 2015, showing that food is hardly the only commodity that is overproduced.

These schemes show what can be achieved when a bit of planning is introduced. But it is too little, too late. Like a modern-day Sisyphus, by the time they have climbed halfway up one pile of food waste, a mountain of landfill is dumped on their heads. Neighbourly Chief Executive Steve Butterworth admits the retail waste that these schemes focus on is the ‘thin end of the wedge’, with supply chain waste and consumer waste remaining the two largest contributors to the UK’s food waste epidemic, accounting for 2.85 million tonnes and 7.1 million tonnes each year respectively. A startup called Olio has created an app that encourages neighbours to exchange unwanted food; it is a good idea but it is still a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Undertaking redistribution schemes often poses too many logistical challenges, including cost limitations, time constraints and the remit of the receiving charities. Tesco failed to hit its two-year target to eliminate food waste from its UK operation by the end of March 2018, instead seeing food waste across its operation increase by more than 6,000 tonnes.

As WRAP says, ‘preventing food waste at source should always come first’, but this doesn’t happen due to, for example, ‘food incorrectly labelled, over-ordered, over-supplied or obsolete seasonal stock’. It cannot put its finger on why it is constantly over-ordered and over-supplied, though.

Anarchic production

Production under capitalism is carried out according to the expansionary needs of capital. Like any other commodity, the amount of food produced is determined by how much has to be sold to produce sufficient profit, ie returns over and above the costs invested. Profit is surplus value, which is produced only by the human labour that goes into commodity production. Enough surplus value has to be produced if capital is to expand. Therefore the number of commodities produced has to keep rising in order to maintain the expansion of capital.

The private commodity producer does not know society’s actual needs nor the volume of production of similar commodities produced by competitors. Anarchy ensues: the distribution of commodities among different branches of production inevitably takes the wrong proportions and a disparity between supply and demand arises – some goods appear on the market in inadequate quantities while there is a surplus of others.

This would be less of a problem if producers were small. But because capital has to expand perpetually, and necessarily via the centralisation and concentration of capital, monopolies inevitably arise.

Monopolies grow at the expense of weaker rivals through mergers and acquisitions. In February 2018, Tesco – the longstanding dominant corporation in the UK grocery sector – purchased cash-and-carry chain Booker for £3.7 billion. That inspired Sainsbury’s to buy up Asda (which had seen operating profits fall from £845m to £720m in 2017) in a mega-deal that puts their combined value at £51bn. Sainsbury’s and Asda now have a combined market share of 31.4%, taking the combined entity ahead of Tesco’s 27.6%. Sainsbury’s paid £3bn in cash for Asda to US giant Walmart, which retains a 41% stake in the combined business.

Sainsbury’s has been struggling to compete on price on the food and drink front, and had fallen further behind Tesco in terms of scale with the Booker merger. Sainsbury’s has now promised to lower prices on ‘many of the products customers buy regularly’ by as much as 10%. This is part of the need to devalue capital in order to restore the process of accumulation. The deal is expected to deliver savings of around £500m per year, mostly because of its greater buying clout with suppliers, who will be forced to accept lower prices. In turn, suppliers will look to recover lost profits by extracting better terms from smaller customers.

Poverty and artificial scarcity

If food is overproduced in such massive quantities, how can much of humanity be plagued by hunger and malnourishment? The answer of course is poverty – but why does poverty exist? The global economy grew by 380% between 1980 and 2015, yet the number of people living on less than $5 (£3.20) a day increased by more than 1.1 billion.

To keep profits rising and capital expanding, wages have to be depressed below the value of labour power – the amount a worker needs to reproduce themself and their family on a daily basis. As the capitalist forces down wages and reduces the number of workers employed in favour of raising productivity through innovation, workers have less money to put food on the table.

The poverty created by capitalism is extended by the phenomenon of artificial scarcity. An overabundance of commodities cheapens them as demand cannot match supply, encouraging corporations to destroy the excess to push up prices to a profitable level. In February 2016 France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from destroying food. It also happens when a business goes bust: in April 2018 it was reported that £8m of food would be destroyed at the stricken meat supplier Russell Hume.

Central planning

Food redistribution schemes may be well intentioned, otherwise they wouldn’t be happening. But, to quote Frederick Engels: ‘It is infamous, this charity of a Christian capitalist! As though they rendered the workers a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then placing themselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when they give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!’

Charities are a form of privatisation,[5] delivering services that should be provided by the state, and the volunteers they employ are middle class people who can afford to work for free, taking away job opportunities that could be done by the unemployed, by the very hungry homeless people they have made dependent.

As everyone will discover, the problem of food waste can only get worse under capitalism. The alternative is working class liberation through revolution and socialist central planning – expropriate, nationalise and merge the corporate food companies, produce healthy food to be sold at low prices and allocate it to the population in equal and sensible quantities. Only then will ending hunger, poverty and waste become eminently possible.

[1] See: The ‘sixth mass extinction’ is a product of capitalism – not population growth, 25 August 2017

[2] See: Plastic world: the manifestation of anarchic capitalist production

[3] See: Imperialism: draining trillions of dollars out of oppressed nations, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017

[4] See: Britain's supermarkets – food imperialism, May 2009

[5] Charities: The corruption of goodwill, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018


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