Monday, October 1, 2012

Wasting Food

My initial instinct reading this article
is that it lends to the notion that the problem is relatively low food prices in Canada and, even worse, some sort of ignorant first-world consumer culture. I think such an approach can lead people to blaming individual consumption habits as the source of the problem, while completely ignoring absurd and glaring structural problems with how we produce, distribute and consume food.
High levels of food waste in the home is a post-war phenomenon rooted in how our cities have been constructed around the car and the evolution of near-monopoly control of the food production and distribution system. The neighbourhood grocer/butcher/baker was based around the pre-war walking/streetcar city. The supermarket, however, became king in the post-war car-centred suburbs, and while it dominated the suburbs it also had the affect of devastating local neighbourhood food retail through lower prices and increasing control of food distribution networks.

Many local grocers fought the rise of the supermarket by forming business alliances capable of competing with the supermarket. But through engaging in market competition, these independent grocer alliances became part of the very tendency towards concentration and centralization and eventual monopolization of the food distribution industry. This is exactly the story of IGA: the Independent Grocers Alliance.

The lesson here is that whatever the market, competition over times leads to less competition as weak competitors are driven out and the amount of capital invested in such operations rises to such a point that upstart competitors are nearly impossible (imagine the initial capital costs of starting a car company today versus 1900). This trend towards concentration and centralization in food distribution was combined with a similar trend in food production. Like the local grocer/baker/butcher, the small farmer producing for a local market was also pushed to the margins of the food production market. The result for consumers is that buying food tends to require a car as local food stores within walking distance deter and even prevent daily shopping.

Food consumption habits have also been shaped by several important changes in working-class family life. The stereotypical 1950s two-parent family with a sole male breadwinner, has been replaced by two-parent families with two breadwinners, as well as a rise in single-parent families. Some have blamed this on third-wave feminism and the emergence of women's liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. This entirely misses the point that increased female participation in the workforce and accessibility to employment beyond traditionally-female jobs was necessary to breakdown profoundly unjust social norms which simply had to go. Likewise, rising divorce rates from the 1960s onward, as well as recent trends towards a decrease in marriage among families with and without children, represents an increased ability of women to determine their own relationships free of forms of male control and violence and wider cultural stigmatization. And it is not as though these interrelated struggles have at all been resolved.

Critically, these changes in the structure of working-class families operate within a changing economic system. Such transformations in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, coincide with stagnating and even declining real wages. The return of cyclical economic crises and the related rise of neoliberal economic and social policies since the 1970s has seen a sustained restructuring of the global economy around efforts to increase profit rates at the expense of labour's share of the wealth. In conjunction with stagnant or declining real wages, North America has also witnessed a rise in working hours amidst a change in family life increasingly relying on two working parents or a working single parent. Free time has become increasingly scarce. It is remarkable that the motto of the Eight Hours Movement in the 1860s - 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, 8 hours rest - remains an anathema to capitalism's economic interests 150 years later.

With less free time and food consumption increasingly reliant on a car, it is no wonder that people will shop once a week and buy huge amounts of food. The decline of well-paying full-time jobs with stable working hours and job security (in part a function of trade union power) has also led to highly chaotic patterns in family life, making any sort of meal planning even more difficult and unlikely. This increases the likelihood of food going bad as families and especially parents are less able to actually plan out their food consumption on a daily basis when they've bought food for a week; something that is far more easier when you can buy your food each day or every two days. This also leads to an increased reliance on prepared and snack food; food which is far more likely to be unhealthy, loaded with salt, sugar and all sorts of chemical for preservation purposes. These processed and prepared foods are also integrated into the agribusiness system; a system which relies heavily on factory-farmed food which itself is heavily dependent on massive use of pesticides, GMOs, hormone treatments, etc. After a long-day at work and/or during a hectic day of a busy family schedule, would you rather be preparing and cooking food for 30-45 minutes, or using that time to unwind with something you can make in 5 minutes? The right-wing response - it's a question of personal responsibility! - is the utopian, unrealistic assessment of the situation. Such a view belies a complete lack of understanding (and compassion) for our fellow human beings. People aren't robots who don't get tired, don't need time to unwind, and don't live in a system not of their own choosing.

Even the most diligent food consumer can't affect or change this entire, complex system through individual consumption habits. The question of consumption is directly tied to how food production and distribution is organized and these realms of the food system are subordinated to concerns about market share and profitability; not geographic accessibility, financial accessibility, local economic activity or individual and community health concerns. And it is ultimately extremely wasteful both at the point of consumption, and in its environmental impact through GMOs, massive use of pesticides and other chemicals, depletion of good soil, and the air and water pollution from food processing and the transportation required for continent-wide shipping of even the most basic produce and meats that can be produced locally almost anywhere in North America.

These arrangements have not been shaped by consumption habits but by powerful economic forces - agribusiness, supermarket chains, the fast food industry - that have gradually transformed the food system into a profit-generating system, not a healthy, accessible one based on simple human needs. This is much the same problem as privatized healthcare in the US. A fundamental human need is being exploited for profit at the expense of that very need. A grounded, realistic and pragmatic approach to the problem requires us to concede the necessity of a profound revolution in how we produce, distribute and consume food.

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