Major forces

Of the available information, studies on the industrial world unanimously conclude that the largest and second-largest contributors to food waste are consumers and retailers, respectively (Griffin et al., 2009; Gooch et al., 2010; Hodges, Buzby, & Bennett, 2011; Waste and Resources Action Programme U.K., 2011). But such high levels of waste in the industrial world are a relatively recent phenomenon[1]. Parfitt et al. (2010), for example, cite studies on the changes at the U.K. household level, from one to three percent pre-World War II to 25% of current purchases (by weight). Abdulla et al. (2013) concluded that total food waste per capita in Canada increased 40% from 1961 to 2009, which outpaced increases in food availability over the same period.  The United Nations Environment Program (2013) concluded that if current rates of food waste continue, by 2050 the world would need 60% more calories than in 2006. Reducing waste by 50% would reduce calorie demand by 20%.

A range of explanations for this type of shift ­­­- cultural, political, structural and logistical - have been put forward and we briefly review them here and return to some of these themes when putting forward our proposals for change. Gidwani and Reddy (2011) argue that early British notions of liberalism (and property) were entirely connected to discourses of the time about waste. The British political philosopher John Locke, whose ideas underpin much of political liberalism, positioned the commons as waste. “The theme of nature as bountiful yet wasteful, unless properly harnessed by application of human labor, is a powerful undercurrent in Locke’s theory” (p. 1633). Put another way, Nature was profligate so it needed to be controlled. But, given the period’s lack of ecological literacy, the controls imposed were entirely unecological in their design. Consequently, they actually generated more and different kinds of waste since waste, as humans have constructed it, does not exist in natural systems.

The current waste problem is in part the wider story of rural-urban antagonism within capitalism (Foster & Magdoff, 1998, Foster, 1999; Friedmann, 2000; Moore 2000, 2011; Clark & York, 2008; Schneider & McMichael, 2010). Marx’s theory of metabolic rift explains such antagonism as the separation of social production from its natural biological base, tangibly seen in the separation of production from consumption and the marked division of labour between town and country (Foster & Magdoff, 1998; Friedmann, 2000; Moore, 2000). The metabolic rift framework helps explain the link between problems of soil infertility and environmental degradation and increasingly long-distance global agricultural trade (Schneider & McMichael, 2010).

Relatively low food prices (compared to earlier historical periods) are also thought to be an important cause of food waste (Rutten, 2013). Particularly for consumers, the relatively low cost of food may prevent taking action. Scarcity, and the associated high cost of wasting food, either in dollar or human resource terms, has historically been a prime force for waste minimization. Now, for agri-food producers and suppliers, it may be better to allow for some food losses at a relatively low cost, rather than take measures to combat it for a seemingly relatively high cost and low returns (Prasada, Bredahl, & Wigle, 2010). The low price of food is partly a product of surplus, but also a product of cost externalization. Neither producers nor consumers are paying the real price, as consequences are externalized to health care and environmental degradation (cf. Tegtmeier & Duffy, 2004). Certainly, one externalized cost is food waste disposal itself, that the fees charged are so low relative to the impacts on the environment and the lost opportunities for use. Government subsidies to energy and waste management contribute to food cost externalization because they appear to make food cheaper.

A large body of literature focuses on the growing power held by a limited number of agri-food manufacturers and supermarket chains throughout the global food system (see Frameworks, Political Economy and Problems, Corporate Concentration).  Due to their exceptional buying power, food retailers now strongly influence other actors along the food supply chain, which may further affect the generation of food waste (Richards, Bjørkhaug, Lawrence, & Hickman, 2013). Such retailer practices include unnecessary inventory, excessive transportation, lack of coordination along the chain, and high quality standards (Gooch et al., 2010; ERS, 2011; Mena, Adenso-Diaz, & Yurt, 2011). Quality standards can readily be an instrument of economic power as retailers will change them depending on levels of production (Gille, 2013). They can also be used to shift risk to those with less economic power, typically farmers and small suppliers (cf. Campbell, 2002). Both Stuart (2009) and Bloom (2011) identify perverse incentives in the system that result from these power relations, for example, that retailers do not necessarily plan their orders well as, in many cases, produce remaining on shelves is returned unpaid to the producer.

These relations permit supermarkets and general merchandisers selling food to not only waste food at their stores and distribution centres (DCs), but also cause food waste upstream in the supply chain and downstream among consumers. Competitive relations create a lack of coordination among the different actors in the food supply chain and disconnects between the chain and consumers. Manufacturers waste food because of their agreements with retail chains, often overproducing to fulfil retailer demands. Farmers waste food in an effort to provide retailers all year long with the highest cosmetic standards, as part of their efforts to remain competitive. Poor demand forecasting, overproduction, inefficient management policies and practices, and attitudes towards fresh food all contribute to food waste at the supermarket level (for more details on these phenomena, see Waste in the Industrial Food System).

Perversely, certain well established processes that appear to reduce waste may actually contribute to it or have less of a positive impact than presumed. O’Brien (2013, p. 202) captures this problem in the observation that, “contemporary policy simply construes the discarding as a link in the chain of surplus management.” In this sense, the lines are blurred between surplus and waste. Midgley (2013) argues that secondary markets in surplus food, such as food banks, are designed to protect primary markets, by providing outlet for lower quality goods and ultimately helping to regulate prices.  Others go so far as to argue that there is an intimate link between corporate food regimes and the charitable food system, and governments, through legislative and regulatory frameworks are complicit in sustaining over production and feeding the surplus (the waste) into the charitable system as a way to mitigate (at least perceptually) what is fundamentally an immoral and inequitable system of food distribution (Fisher, 2017; Riches, 2018; Lohnes, 2021).  States (Lohnes, 2021), "food waste transfers into the charitable food economy are tightly controlled by the state and large agro-industrial food concerns to ensure that they do not disrupt the scarcity logics and profit imperatives currently driving the biopolitics of food provisioning".  This is not to say that all food charity should be rejected but rather that it must be conceived, resourced and operated in different ways than the dominant approach (cf. Cloke et al., 2017; Edwards, 2021).

Equally difficult, the efforts of one part of the supply chain create challenges for other parts.  Under current food system conditions, reducing food waste on the demand side will have mixed outcomes regarding overall welfare of agri-food firms. For consumers, reducing individual food waste is generally beneficial as less money is spent on food purchases. Conversely, reducing consumer food waste may not be in the best interests of agri-food producers and suppliers as there is reduced demand for food products. However, producer and supplier welfare may not necessarily decline if consumers are using saved expenses for the consumption of other higher end commodities (Rutten, 2013)[2]. Typically, as food waste reduction strategies are only measured against a cost-benefit ratio, consideration for the distribution of welfare and larger ecological impacts are omitted (Parks & Gowdy, 2013).

Consumer food waste is often attributed to behavioural responses that may be facilitated in part by the structure of food retailing and manufacturing (e.g. packaging sizes, one-stop stock-up trips, supermarket locations). Some other identified causes of consumer food waste include high aesthetic standards for produce (Hingston and Noseworthy, 2020), cooking/preparing too much, not using the food in time, and a lack of confidence using leftovers (Gooch et al., 2010).  In turn, the supermarket industry uses these consumer responses to pump up sales, for example, presenting only cosmetically perfect produce and setting standards for suppliers to meet that expectation.  This in turn creates a feedback loop to consumers that reinforces their desire for perfection (Hingston and Noseworthy, 2020). Related to this, some studies (Jaffe & Gertler, 2006) partly ascribe the rise in food waste to consumer deskilling, which refers to the intentional and unintentional loss of basic food knowledge, such as proper food handling, storage, and preparation. As Evans (2012, p. 12) showed from his ethnographic work with south Manchester U.K. householders, food waste emerges from the intersection of “time, tastes, conventions, family relations and domestic divisions of labour’ within ‘the material context...of domestic technologies, infrastructures of provision and the materiality properties of food itself”. Watson and Meah (2013, p. 116) put it another way: “Food waste is in this way the fallout of the organization of everyday life. The location of practices of household food provisioning within broader patterns and rhythms through which everyday life is accomplished can easily work to displace enactment of concerns to avoid waste.” It is clear, however, that the focus on the consumer is excessive, given the myriad of forces in the food system generating waste (cf. Messner et al., 2020).


[1] Of course, waste in pre-industrial periods would have a different character than the current profile.
[2] Since we can only eat so much food, saving money on waste reduction does not necessarily mean buying more food with it, but possibly buying different kinds of foods. But this involves a substitution that might, in a cascading way, result in other producers suffering.